News of the World deleted messages from Milly's mobile

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The News of the World interfered with the police inquiry into the disappearance of the Surrey schoolgirl Milly Dowler by hacking into her mobile phone, police sources have confirmed.

In the latest blow to Rupert Murdoch's News International, Scotland Yard detectives have found evidence that the paper targeted the 13-year-old's phone in March 2002, soon after she disappeared.

The tabloid – then edited by News International's chief executive Rebekah Brooks – deleted messages left on her phone by desperate friends and relatives to free space in her inbox, so that it could access fresh voicemails for stories. This led Surrey police and the Dowler family to believe she may be alive. The NOTW later ran a story based on a hoax message left on her voicemail and also carried a heart-rending interview with the Dowler family, unaware that their false hope had been at least partly stirred by its own criminality. It is understood the mobile phones of Milly's parents, Robert and Sally, were also targeted.

By then Milly had been murdered by Levi Bellfield, who was jailed for life last month after a trial that involved intense questioning of her parents.

Mark Lewis, their solicitor, said last night that the Dowlers had been informed about the phone hacking by officers from Operation Weeting, the Yard's new investigation into phone hacking by the private investigator Glenn Mulcaire. Mr Lewis said: "I would suggest this is one of the worst cases of all... who at the News of the World was thinking it was appropriate to try to hack into the phone of a missing young girl? Sally and Bob Dowler have been through so much grief and trauma without further distressing revelations to them regarding the loss of their daughter."

The latest twist is likely to increase pressure on Ms Brooks, who used her editorship of the NOTW to conduct a campaign to tighten laws to protect children from paedophiles after the murder of Sarah Payne in 2000. Labour MP Tom Watson claimed last week that the NOTW hacked the phones of the parents of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, the children murdered at Soham in 2002.

He told the Commons that targeting Milly Dowler's phone was a "despicable and evil act that will shock parents up and down the land to the core". Labour MP Chris Bryant added: "This is the most horrific, depraved story yet... Not only did the News of the World clearly think that they were above the law; they were prepared to play God with the emotions of the Dowler family."