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This paper proposes an efficient constraint-based optimization model for the design of 3G mobile networks, such as universal mobile telecommunications system (UMTS). The model concerns about finding a set of sites for locating radio network controllers (RNCs) from a set of pre-defined candidate sites, and at the same time optimally assigning node Bs to the selected RNCs. All these choices must satisfy a set of constraints and optimize an objective function. This problem is NP-hard and consequently cannot be practically solved by exact methods for real size networks. Thus, this paper proposes a hybrid search strategy for tackling this complex and combinatorial optimization problem. The proposed hybrid search strategy is composed of three phases: A constraint satisfaction method with an embedded problem-specific goal which guides the search for a good initial solution, an optimization phase using local search algorithms, such as tabu algorithm, and a post-optimization phase to improve solutions from the second phase by using a constraint optimization procedure. Computational results show that the proposed search strategy and the model are highly efficient. Optimal solutions are always obtained for small or medium sized problems. For large sized problems, the final results are on average within 5.77% to 7.48% of the lower bounds.