Kuala Lampur - Malaysian police on Thursday arrested 137 people, mostly from China and Taiwan, in a raid on a crime ring that bet on English football, arranged Internet gambling and carried out online scams.

Police conducted the raid in the city of Kajang, near the capital Kuala Lumpur, after receiving a tip-off in what was one of the biggest betting busts ever in Malaysia, said city police chief Abdul Rashid Abdul Wahab.

It was the latest high-profile effort to clamp down on illegal sports betting in Asia, which has seen hundreds of people arrested and millions of dollars confiscated, notably in mainland China, Hong Kong and Malaysia.

Football, and particularly the English Premier League, is hugely popular in Malaysia. But sports betting is illegal and those found guilty can be jailed. Police said they would push for up to 20

years in prison.

Five of those netted on Thursday were Malaysians, while the rest were from China and Taiwan, the police chief told AFP. The group arranged betting on the Premier League and other forms of online gambling, he said.

The ring also carried out Internet scams that sought to obtain the credit card numbers of victims in China, Taiwan and Portugal by sending email notices claiming the recipients had debts they needed to pay immediately.

Police did not say how much money the group had earned.

But Abdul Rashid said the ring appeared to be relatively sophisticated because the five bungalows raided by police were equipped with closed-circuit television systems for security.

“For sure we will demand harsh punishments,” Abdul Rashid said, adding that the charges could lead to jail terms of up to 20 years and caning.

Most gambling is illegal outside of Malaysia's sole casino resort, which is located in the Genting Highlands, also near Kuala Lumpur.

Two years ago, there was a proposal to operate sports betting schemes to prevent criminal groups from forming. But the government in Malaysia, which has a large Muslim population - gambling is forbidden in Islam - shot it down.

Nevertheless, illegal betting on English football is rife, driven by the country's large Chinese minority.

Corruption has long blighted football in Asia, particularly in Malaysia, Vietnam and China. The Asian Football Confederation has described match-fixing as a “cancer” that is destroying the game.

Aseh Che Mat, chairman of the Football Association of Malaysia's (FAM) transparency committee, said: “I praise the swift action by Malaysian police to wipe out this syndicate.

“Criminal syndicates must realise they cannot sustain their activities in Malaysia for long.”

Asian Football Confederation (AFC) general secretary Alex Soosay hailed the raid as having far-reaching benefits for the game.

“Gambling has been detrimental to the development of football in Asia,” he said.

Malaysia has itself been dogged by longstanding concerns over match-fixing, fears that have spiked recently after FAM earlier this year suspended 18 youth players and banned a coach for life for fixing matches.

Illegal betting was a particular problem in parts of Asia during the 2010 football world cup.

In June that year police in Malaysia arrested 129 people including students for illegal football betting worth $94 million.

They teamed up with Interpol to try and track down several others who had fled.

The same month in Hong Kong, where English football is also very popular, police smashed a $22-million gambling ring that took illegal bets on World Cup games and horse racing.

Authorities arrested four men linked to Hong Kong's notorious triad gangs and seized betting records.

In July 2010, Hong Kong and mainland Chinese police rumbled a large cross-border illegal football gambling syndicate, seizing betting slips worth more than one billion dollars.

Like in Malaysia, punters in Hong Kong face restrictions on what they can bet on and - as in mainland China - there are no casinos. - Sapa-AFP