Police crack Internet child pornography ring

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Eleven men have been arrested and hundreds of obscene pictures seized in an international police operation against child pornography on the Internet computer system.

Nine people in England and Scotland were questioned and 17 computers confiscated during raids that targeted about 40 people in America, Canada, Hong Kong, Germany and South Africa. So far two people have been arrested in Hong Kong and Germany. The dawn swoops on Tuesday were part of an international operation code named "Starburst".

British detectives are trying to trace children used in the photographs, some of which show boys and girls as young as three. They believe the ring has been using the Internet to exchange obscene pictures, and possibly literature, free of charge throughout the world. This latest, and possibly most serious, abuse of the network highlights the lack of control over what can be placed on the system.

In Britain, 13 searches were carried out by 80 police officers in the West Midlands, West Mercia, Sussex, London, Tayside, Manchester, Nottinghamshire and Staffordshire.

Police have recovered more than 1,000 pictures of child pornography kept on computer files. Most of the children are aged from 6 to 12. Det Con Vic Marshall, of Sussex police, said: "We are trying to identify who they are. Many are being abused in order for these pictures to be taken. It's a mammoth task. The pictures are horrendous, truly appalling. Some are posed, but others are taking part in sexual acts and look terrified."

The operation, which was co-ordinated by West Midland police's commercial vice unit, followed the arrests in April of two men in Sussex on suspicion of distributing child pornography on the Internet. After uncovering international links, the police joined up with the paedophile unit at the National Criminal Intelligence Service, who liaised with police abroad.

Most of the men arrested in the UK were described as middle aged professional men. Eight have been interviewed and released on bail and a man from Sussex has been charged with distributing indecent photographs of a child on the Internet and holding child pornography on computer.

The suspects could be charged under the Obscene Publications Act or Protection of Children Act.

Policing the Internet, page 3