Nine "modern day slaves" who were freed by police following a dawn raid on a caravan site over the weekend have refused to co-operate with the investigation as detectives continue to unravel what they believe is one of the worst cases of forced labour in modern British history.

Bedfordshire police insist they have dismantled a slavery ring operated by a family-run crime syndicate that forced vulnerable men to live in appalling conditions for little or no pay.

Four men were charged yesterday with slavery offences relating to four men found at the site in Bedfordshire.

Officers swooped on the caravan park in Leighton Buzzard on Sunday morning after months of undercover surveillance work sparked by a tip-off. They found 24 British and eastern European men living in filthy buildings, from dog kennels to sheds.

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Detectives say gang masters targeted the men at soup kitchens, job centres and benefit offices with the promise of work but instead forced them to labour for more than 12 hours a day for minimal wages. The youngest is a 17-year-old boy who has been returned to his parents. At least one had been living there for 15 years.

But Bedfordshire police yesterday admitted nine of those rescued have declined to co-operate with the investigation. One even returned to the caravan site yesterday insisting he had been happy and the police raid had been "heavy-handed".

Experts said it was often common for victims to empathise with their abusers. "We can't prejudge what has happened here," said Paul Donohoe, of Anti-Slavery International.

"But you do find sometimes that institutionalisation ... creates a situation where captives psychologically identify with their captors."

- INDEPENDENT