Three men behind one of the largest ever single hauls of smuggled cigarettes found in the North West have been jailed.

The 16.5 million illegal cigarettes were seized by HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) officers in the Rochdale area in December 2011.

They were hidden in a consignment of fruit, with a large quantity of oranges and kiwi fruits used as a “cover load” in an attempt to conceal the smuggled tobacco.

The cigarettes seized were mainly Golden Eagle and Gold Classic brands with smaller quantities of Arden, Hoop and Regal.

As well as the cigarettes, 1.3 kilos of hand rolling tobacco, 83 litres of beer, 51 litres of wine and some pharmaceutical products were also seized as part of the investigation.

Two members of the gang were each jailed for more than three years, while another was jailed for 24 weeks, suspended for two years.

They were all arrested at the time of the seizure and all pleaded guilty to the crime, which was worth an estimated £3.2m in evaded excise duty.

HMRC officers also seized three vehicles and over £69,000 in cash. The seized cigarettes were recycled as fuel pellets and used to fuel the national electricity grid.