UK enforcement agency efforts to disrupt illicit tobacco sales are bearing fruit - with a string of high profile arrests and jail sentences issued in the past two weeks.

A criminal gang, who used their freight company as a cover to smuggle more than 14 million cigarettes inside boxes of fruit and vegetables, were jailed for a total of more than 15 years yesterday.

The three men were arrested in May 2012 after HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) discovered that they had been shipping illicit cigarettes from Dubai through East Africa into the UK, evading over £3m in duty.

John Cooper, assistant director, criminal investigation, HMRC, said: “This was a major investigation into the exploits of three criminals attempting to flood the UK with illicit cigarettes. They thought their set-up was undetectable, but they were wrong and our investigation has led to them being brought to account.”

HMRC investigators uncovered the smuggling ring after working closely with UK Border Force and the Serious Organised Crime Agency (now the National Crime Agency).

Confiscation proceedings to reclaim the criminal profits are under way.

Gang leader Feroz Abubakar Batliwala was sentenced this week to eight years, six months in prison and banned from being a company director for 12 years.

The two other men, Krishan Kumar and Ashiquir Rohman, were jailed for seven years and 20 months in prison respectively.

The sentencing following a string of other victories for HMRC as it seeks to clamp down on illicit tobacco sales.

Last week six men were arrested as part of an investigation into a suspected £22m tobacco smuggling, tax evasion and money laundering fraud.

Officers from HMRC carried out simultaneous searches of 11 premises in Essex, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire, London and the West Midlands in an investigation codenamed Operation Nipper.

The same week saw two lorry drivers, who attempted to smuggle almost 200,000 illegal cigarettes into the UK by hiding them in the wheel space of their lorry, were sentenced to eight months in prison.