Garda immigration officer at Dublin Airport

a wealthy Chinese restaurateur has been arrested in connection with a major probe into the disappearance of 34 unaccompanied Chinese minors whom gardaí suspect were trafficked into Ireland to work in the sex and labour industry.

Gardaí based in Dublin raided the restaurateur's three eateries, including a popular high-end restaurant recently refurbished at a cost of €60,000, in the north-east after receiving intelligence that some of the 34 missing children were in contact with the Chinese businessman.

The minors disappeared from accommodation hostels for unaccompanied boys and girls in Dublin city centre over the past couple of years.

During the raids at the businessman's two restaurants and one take-away, gardaí discovered nine staff members, all of whom were working illegally in Ireland.

Two were asylum seekers, four were illegal immigrants, two were students and another was legally in the country but not permitted to work.

No trace of the 34 minors who disappeared from state care was found but the businessman admitted when arrested that he had helped one of the children to find a job on the black market within the Chinese community.

Gardaí have established that the businessman has filed no tax returns from his three eateries, the first of which opened in 2002.

A file is being prepared for the DPP and it is planned eventually to seek trafficking charges against the man in relation to the missing minors as he is linked to some of them through mobile phone contact.

Officers believe they have enough evidence to charge the businessman with failing to declare tax on his three restaurants. He is also facing fines of up to €250,000 for each illegal worker in his restaurants as well as a prison sentence of up to 10 years per person for employing people illegally under the Employment Permits Act.

Garda sources say the investigation is at a very early stage but they believe the man could be the mastermind behind the trafficking.

"He's certainly involved significantly in some way. We can link him to two of the disappeared unaccompanied minors," said a senior garda involved in the probe.

"This is still a very young and live investigation. Our focus at the moment is on trying to find out where these minors went."

Some of the missing minors had presented themselves to Garda National Immigration Bureau (GNIB) without any papers. "In some of the cases, they possibly aren't underage but with no papers it's hard to prove this one way or the other," he added.