Alleged child network leaders arrested after $2m thefts

Police say they have busted a child network tasked with stealing more than $2 million worth of cash and cigarettes in Melbourne to avoid adults "getting their hands dirty".

Victoria Police on Wednesday evening announced the arrests of four men followed a months-long investigation, with children as young as 12 allegedly recruited into the network.

The more than 20 children - the eldest of whom was 17 - were behind more than 140 cigarette burglaries and armed robberies in Melbourne's eastern suburbs since January, police allege.

The children allegedly targeted service stations, supermarkets and tobacconists to come away with a cumulative haul worth more than $2 million.

"Police will allege that for as little as a couple of hundred dollars, these children have been enticed into stealing millions of dollars of cigarettes and cash from service stations, supermarkets, and tobacconists," Eastern region regional crime advisor Acting Inspector Dale Maxwell said.

"Children as young as 12 have allegedly been recruited by adults' intent on lining their own pockets without getting their hands dirty.

"These adults are intentionally preying on youth to offend on their behalf in the misguided hope they won't be linked to the offending while they profit substantially."

Insp. Maxwell said police identified a sophisticated network of child offenders carrying out serious and violent crimes on behalf of adults.

More than 40 per cent of the children were already known to police for sneaking into homes and stealing cars for joyrides, officers said.

Police arrested two 19-year-old men who they alleged recruited the more than 20 children to target suburbs including Blackburn, Balwyn, Boroondara, Burwood, Clayton, Camberwell, Doncaster East, Hawthorn, Lilydale, Oakleigh, and Somerville.

The two men - one from Burwood, and the other from Ferntree Gully - had links to youth gangs and were the ringleaders of the operation, officers alleged.

Police also arrested two cigarette vendors, aged 33 from Burwood and 53 from Silvan, who they alleged the cigarettes were on-sold to.

As part of officers' investigations, they seized cigarettes and vapes, more than $243,000 cash from the 33-year-old Burwood man's home and more than 200 cannabis plants and weapons.

Police executed 16 search warrants on Wednesday and, along with the four men, arrested three more adults and a 15-year-old boy for other matters.

Officers arrested 38 people in connection with the 140 cigarette burglaries before Wednesday.

Among them, they arrested five children on April 17.