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WASHINGTON (AFP) – A nationwide sting focused on underage prostitution has freed 105 sexually abused youths and netted 150 pimps, the FBI announced.

Most of the minors rescued during the three-day operation in 76 cities are aged 13 to 16, said Ronald Hosko, assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division.

“Our goal is that child trafficking is openly discussed,” Hosko told reporters. “We are trying to take this crime out of the shadows and put a spotlight on it… to put them [the children] out of the cycle.”

The sweep took place in conjunction with local, state, and federal law enforcement, as well as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).

NCMEC CEO John Ryan said the sting, dubbed Operation Cross Country, “demonstrates just how many of America’s children are being sold for sex every day, many on the Internet.”

San Francisco agents freed a dozen children and arrested 17 pimps, while the FBI’s Detroit team rescued 10 children and took 18 pimps into custody. In Atlanta, two youths were recovered, while 17 pimps were detained.

The busts typically began by targeting truck stops, casinos, as well as websites that advertise dating or escort services, the FBI said. The detained often ended up helping uncover wider networks of prostitution that cross state lines, turning it into a federal crime.

The operation was part of the bureau’s Innocence Lost National Initiative, which, since its launch in 2003, has been involved in the rescue of more than 2,700 sexually exploited children.

One girl freed in an earlier operation, identified only as Alex in an interview posted on the FBI’s web site, was 15 when she left a difficult home situation, and 16 when she turned to prostitution.

“At first it was terrifying, and then you just kind of become numb to it,” she said of her experience on the streets. “You put on a whole different attitude — like a different person. It wasn’t me. I know that. Nothing about it was me.”

She ultimately contacted the FBI, which, with her help, arrested two pimps and rescued several other minors.

FBI agent Kurt Ormberg, involved in that operation, said vulnerable children tend to be seeking to fill a void, often related to problems at home.

“Too often,” he said, “these young victims don’t think they have anywhere else to turn.”

There have been 1,350 convictions from the Innocent Lost initiative’s investigations, resulting “in lengthy sentences, including 10 life terms and the seizure of more than $3.1million in assets,” the FBI statement said.

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