Police chiefs in Surrey have been forced to issue a grovelling apology after issuing a tweet that many members of the public claimed were racist. The offensive tweet was posted shortly after a raid by members of Guildford police and the UK Border Agency on the "Hands ON" mobile car wash outside the Burpham branch of Sainsbury's, on the outskirts of the town.

In the operation three men and one woman from Uganda were found to have overstayed visas; two others were working in breach of their visas; and one more had entered the country illegally. Several of those arrested were transferred to an immigration centre and face deportation. The car wash could be fined a total of £80,000 unless it proves right-to-work checks were carried out. The operation seemed to be a complete success - but then a tweet appeared on the local @GuildfordBeat Twitter feed which read:

"Officers 1 Immigrants 0. #WeWillCatchUpWithYou."

Shortly after the tweet was posted at 9.30pm on Thursday members of the public began posting comments complaining about the tweet's "xenophobic" tone. One said: "Are you proud of yourself? Victimising vulnerable migrants? Displaying a callously obvious level of racism? Shame on you."

Another wrote: "'Just seen the @Guildford Beat tweet. They shouldn't be allowed on the streets let alone Twitter if that is the attitude they have."

Soon afterwards another tweet said: "The wording used in the earlier tweet was inappropriate and has since been removed. Apologies for any offence caused."

The furore comes at a particularly embarrassing time for the police, who have faced fierce criticism in parliament over their handling of the so-called Plebgate affair and calls for all officers to wear cameras and microphones at all times.

However not everyone expressing a view on Twitter believed the police tweet was offensive. One tweeter posted:

"I really can't see why @GuildfordBeat apologised!! What was so bad about that tweet? I don't think there was a need to say sorry."

Another said:

No idea what the problem is with @GuildfordBeat tweet. Is Immigrant now a race?! #WorldHasGoneMad keep up the good work lads and lasses."