About 50 men from 12 countries were arrested and more than 100,000 images, including sexually explicit pictures of girls and boys as young as two, have been recovered during a series of raids. Police believe they have uncovered a paedophile and pornography network, known as the Wonderland Club, in which the requirement for membership is to have at least 10,000 explicit pictures of children stored on computer.
Detectives managed to crack the Internet club, protected by passwords and codes, which members used to exchange sexually explicit images of children. In at least one case in Britain, a man had been filming himself having sex with children and swapping the pictures with club members.
Two of the men arrested in England were found to have nearly 90,000 pornographic photographs of children, described by the officer in charge of the operation as "stomach-churning". School teachers were amongthose arrested worldwide. The network was discovered by chance after a police officer visited a house in St Leonards, near Hastings, East Sussex, late last year after a tip-off by United States customs officers who were investigating a separate porn ring.
In one of the biggest co- ordinated international operations, 105 addresses throughout the world were raided early yesterday morning. Eleven men were arrested in Britain after raids on 14 addresses in London, Sussex, Oxford, Berkshire, Kent, Gloucestershire, Middlesex and Norfolk.
In the US, where the club originates, there were 32 raids; there were 18 in Germany and 16 in Italy. There were also raids in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Norway, Portugal, and Sweden. Police will attempt to trace the abused children and offer them counselling.
Detective Superintendent John Stewardson, who led the operation by the National Crime Squad, said children had been abused on a massive scale to produce material to feed the international ring. "The children abused were of both sexes and some, it would appear, were as young as two, although we don't know because we don't know who these children are yet. The content would turn the stomach of any right-minded person."
The case highlights growing concern about the use of the Internet by paedophiles to swap information and images.
There has been a succession of warnings that paedophiles are exchanging names and addresses of children to abuse as well as linking up with fellow offenders throughout the world.
Bob Packham, the deputy director general of the National Crime Squad, said: "I am unaware of another police operation that has ever pulled together so many law- enforcement agencies worldwide to effect simultaneous raids and arrests."
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