Seven men have been sentenced after more than 250,000 smuggled cigarettes were discovered in the fuel tanks of two HGV tractor units driven in from Poland.

The gang, led by Abdul Rehman, 39, were caught in a Bolton industrial unit in January 2012 by HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) investigators as they tried to retrieve the cigarettes.

Sandra Smith, assistant director of criminal investigation, HMRC, said: “This was a sophisticated ploy, organised by Abdul Rehman, who was on bail for similar offences at the time.

“We urge the public to come forward and let us know if they have information about the sale, transport, or storage of suspect alcohol or tobacco on 0800 59 5000. You can also report suspicious trading, tax evasion or smuggling via our website to help us tackle organised crime.”

Rehman was not at the warehouse when HMRC searched it, but investigations directly linked him to the gang and the smuggling operation. He was interviewed in jail later and denied his involvement, but eventually admitted his role.

The Viceroy-branded cigarettes with Polish markings hidden in the fuel tanks were worth over £50,000 in evaded duty, and have been recycled to fuel the national grid. His Honour Judge Stockdale in sentencing the men commented: “This is one single fraudulent transaction however the conspiracy was professionally planned and sophisticated.”

Rehman, an Afghan national, pleaded guilty to conspiring with others to fraudulently evade excise duty on a commercial quantity of cigarettes under the Customs and Excise Management Act 1979, and was jailed for 15 months at Manchester Crown Court.

The judge took into account that Rehman had previously been convicted, with another man, of £41,000 excise duty evasion in an earlier HMRC prosecution and jailed in March 2012 for 10 months. Rehman was on bail for this earlier offence when HMRC seized the cigarettes in the Bolton industrial unit.

Four other men received prison sentences of between six and ten months and two received suspended sentences.