WASHINGTON – The FBI said Wednesday that 345 people were arrested and 21 young victims rescued in a recent round-up of child prostitution suspects.
"The mission of the 'Innocence Lost' national initiative is to combat the growing problem of sexual exploitation of children through prostitution," said Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Robert Mueller in making the announcement at headquarters.
Among those arrested are pimps and prostitutes — some of whom are in their 20s but are said to have admitted selling sex since their early teens, federal law enforcement sources told FOX News.
To date, the federal child protection initiative has resulted in the recovery of about 433 victims, Mueller said.
The Justice Department said it targeted 16 cities as part of its "Operation Cross Country" that caps off five years of similar stings nationwide.
The recent raids occurred in run-down neighborhoods and interstate truck stops in cities across the country, the sources said. The vast majority of those arrested will be charged under state and local statutes.
Many of the children forced into prostitution are either runaways or what authorities call "throwaways" — kids whose families have shunned them. Officials say they are preyed upon by organized networks of pimps who lure them in with shelter or drugs, then often beat, starve or otherwise abuse them until the children agree to work the streets.
The FBI was touting the fifth year of its child protection program with the news of the multitude of arrests that stemmed from "Operation Cross Country" — launched late last week in 16 large and medium-sized cities including Dallas, Boston and Rockville, Md., among others.
Mueller was joined by Ernie Allen of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in speaking about the program and the round-up at Wednesday's press conference in Washington.
FOX News' Catherine Donaldson-Evans, Catherine Herridge and The Associated Press contributed to this report.