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Police search house for dead babies

NO ONE seems to be sure how many babies there might be buried in the garden or the fields beyond. In a grimly distressing operation, reminiscent of the Fred West case in Britain, French police are digging through the garden of a rural slum near Lille, searching for the bodies of at least three, maybe as many as six, new-born babies.

The infants were the product of repeated sexual attacks over many years on the daughter of the house by two of her brothers. The men, aged 35 and 31, confessed to the crimes after they were arrested two months ago for keeping their father in slavery, imprisoned in a rabbit hutch and terrorised by a dog trained to attack him.

The two young men, Didier and Patrick Lefranc, were placed under formal examination for rape and murder yesterday; their allegedly crippled mother, Lucie, 67, sister Patricia, 25, and younger brother, Dominique, 22, face charges of being accessories to murder and failing to report crimes. The father, Paul, 76, has been placed, for his own safety, in an old person's home.

Patricia Lefranc has told police that she cannot recall how many times her brothers got her pregnant but she believes that she had at least three babies. One of the older brothers has admitted murdering the infants; the other denies any part in the murders but admits the other facts.

Neighbours of the Lefrancs, in the depressed former mining village of Illies, south of Lille, described a permanently drunken family, ruled by a fearsome matriarch - "fat Lucie" - and two violent brothers. The father, who was seen pushing his wife along the road in her wheel-chair, day and night, and in all weathers, was terrorised by his wife and elder sons for years.

The former miner was forced to share meals with the dog, which was trained to attack him. When police finally intervened, following chance remarks made by the daughter, Patricia, the old man was found to have dog bites all over his body.

Plastic screens have been erected around the Lefrancs' home while police, using a miniature excavator, search the back garden.

If no bodies are found, one senior police officer said, the search will be extended to the surrounding fields.

n Paris (AP) - Some French police have avoided arresting pickpockets recently to protest at the government's refusal to pay overtime to salaried officers, a union official said.

Union and police officials planning to meet today insisted the dispute would be settled before the onslaught of fans for the World Cup that begins on 10 June. The dispute began early this year when salaried police officers demanded to be paid for extra work.