Undercover Tel Aviv police, posing as drunks and prostitutes, have begun arresting refugees and asylum seekers by luring them to steal wallets and other items.

Dozens of undercover police officers operated last weekend around the central bus station, where many of the refugees who entered the country illegally live. In a joint operation of the Tel Aviv Region police and the Border Police's Barak unit, policewomen disguised as prostitutes stood on street corners and arrested everyone who tried to attack them. Others pretended to be drunk women looking for a cab home.

"Within two hours there were a number of cases where Eritrean and Sudanese men robbed the police," said Superintendent Ron Krieg, the commander of the Border Police company that took part in the operation.

"Minutes after we started the operation, we already had a number of arrests of those who stole purses and cell phones. Such robberies in the area are nothing new, and we are trying to use the forces creatively to deal with the situation," said Krieg.

A., a university lecturer, witnessed how the operation works. He was wandering around near the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv at 3 A.M. on Friday., hoping to find the thief who had stolen his cell phone minutes earlier. When A. reached the middle of Hasharon Street he noticed a man who appeared to be drunk or drugged lying on the sidewalk and not moving. Next to him was a woman trying to help. A. went over and offered his help. He was surprised when the man immediately sobered up and told him to move on right away.

A. continued on his way and when he reached nearby Hacarmel Street he was surprised to see another man lying on the ground and there was a woman trying to help out at his side too. Both of the men he sawing lying on the ground also had wallets with bills sticking out in their shirt pockets. A. waited on the corner to see what would happen.

A few seconds later, a young Eritrean man approached the man lying on the ground. The Eritrean tried to ask how he was - and when he got no reply he put his hand into the man's shirt pocket, took the wallet and tried to run. The man on the sidewalk and the woman at his side jumped on the young man, shouting "police." Within seconds six police cars and motorcycles appeared and surrounded the Eritrean, whose head hit the wall during his arrest.

These illegal refugees, who are not entitled to work, are brought daily to the Magistrate's Court in Tel Aviv to be remanded, usually after they were caught stealing property worth a few hundred shekels at most. They steal mobile phones and sell them for NIS 150 in stores in the area. Sometimes they work in groups of two or three who steal together to buy food and pay rent.