Sarah's parents visit the field where she was found

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The parents of murdered eight-year-old Sarah Payne today visited the spot where her body was found dumped in undergrowth.

The parents of murdered eight-year-old Sarah Payne today visited the spot where her body was found dumped in undergrowth.

Sarah's mother Sara and her husband Michael spent 20 minutes at the field at Pulborough, West Sussex - 12 miles from where she went missing 18 days ago during a seaside outing.

Among the chrysanthemums, carnations and lilies by the side of the road today were the messages "God bless, little princess" and "Sleep sweetly little angel".

Earlier Sussex Police assistant chief constable Nigel Yeo called for a moment's silence at a press conference at Brinsbury Agricultural College after breaking the news that the body found nearby had been confirmed as that of Sarah.

David Sutton, head teacher at the Bell Farm County Middle School in Hersham, Surrey, which Sarah attended, said pupils had been told of her death and kept informed of the progress of the massive police search throughout.

"Our thoughts are with Sarah's family, friends and teachers at this very difficult time.

"We are a strong family and we have all prayed regularly at assembly both for Sarah and for strength for her parents and brothers and sister," he said.

Mr Yeo said detectives believed the body had been dumped in the field just 10 yards from the busy A29 during the first weekend in July.

Meanwhile a senior police source confirmed that a weapon was not thought to have been involved in the fatal attack on Sarah, which he described as "physical".

He said there were no obvious injuries, but refused to comment on suggestions that the child could have been strangled or asphyxiated.

It was not yet known whether she had been killed at the scene or was dead when she was taken to the Pulborough area.

Chief Inspector Mike Alderson said the Payne family visited the field at about 12.15pm.

"They felt as part of their coming to terms with what has happened, as part of the grieving process, that they wanted to come and look at the location," he said.

"We agreed that they came up with the family liaison officer and they took some time here, about 20 minutes. You cannot imagine how terrible it is for them."

Home Office pathologist Vesna Djurovic carried out a post mortem examination overnight after Sarah's body was taken to the mortuary at Worthing hospital.

Today white-suited forensic officers continued a fingertip search of the surrounding area using sniffer dogs.

The discovery was made by a farm worker out walking in the field.

Sarah was wearing a blue dress and black shoes when she was snatched on her way back from the beach at East Preston near Littlehampton, West Sussex, but when her body was found she was naked.

Mr Yeo told reporters: "She was unclothed, the clothing we have yet to find. That's what we're looking for in the field."

Mr and Mrs Payne made frequent appeals for help in tracing their daughter during the 17-day search and never gave up hope of her being found alive.

Sarah was last seen near her grandparents' home at Kingston Gorse, near East Preston on July 1.

She had been playing with her brothers Lee, 13, and Luke, 11, and her sister Charlotte, aged six, after a family day on the beach.

Police believe she was abducted after she left them in a corn field.

Lee told police he saw a white Ford Transit-style van in the area at the time.

A Littlehampton man was later quizzed by police for over 60 hours before being released without charge.

Sarah's disappearance sparked a nationwide search, with thousands of members of the public calling police with information.

Asked what the mood of officers working on the case was, Mr Yeo said: "I used the expression 'grim but determined' yesterday. I'll live with that.

"It is very sombre because there are a lot of determined people out there."

He told reporters: "As a result of the post mortem, this is now a murder inquiry.

"The information at the moment is that Sarah was probably placed in that field on the first weekend in July."

He refused to comment on whether she had been sexually assaulted but said a number of lines of inquiry were being pursued.

In response to questions, Mr Yeo said samples taken during the post mortem were being tested.

People previously interviewed by police were due to return on bail, but he said there had been no more arrests made during the inquiry since the release of two men questioned during the first week of the investigation.

He renewed police appeals for information about the white Transit-style van, spotted in the area where Sarah vanished by Lee and several other witnesses.

It was vital that anyone who saw the van in the Kingston area between 4pm and 8pm on Saturday July 1 contact police immediately, said Mr Yeo.

He also widened the appeal to include any sightings on the A29, especially over the first weekend in July.

Police are also anxious to hear from anyone who has spotted any suspicious activity near the field since Sarah's disappearance.

And Mr Yeo said it was vital to get more information about any alterations carried out on a van, possibly in the Littlehampton area of West Sussex.

Information about doors being removed or alterations to the van's interior could prove to be extremely important and he urged anyone who owned a garage or lock-up in the area to check it for possible clues.

He added: "I think the parents have always been in a sense as pragmatic as they are strong, that there was a possibility that they would face this scenario. And in some ways it's better facing it almost this way than a process of elimination.

"In that respect they took a very similar line to ourselves, which was this was a missing person inquiry until there was reason for it not to be, and there is reason for it not to be now."

He paid tribute to the work of other forces who had been helping Sussex police with their inquiry and said the liaison between police forces across Britain would continue as the hunt for the killer went on.

A spokesman for the Forensic Science Service laboratories in Lambeth, south London, said a team of scientists was giving top priority to the work from Operation Maple - the code-name for the Sarah Payne investigation - and it was leapfrogging other profiling work.

A wide variety of materials has been sent to the lab but the spokesman refused to comment on what they comprised.

He said the resulting DNA profiles took a minimum of two days to prepare and could then be used to link suspects to the scene or the body, or to eliminate them from the inquiry.

The profiles can be taken from microscopic quantities of samples, using a process which isolates the human material, copies it and then amplifies it many times to make it large enough for profiling.

The profile is then run to the National DNA Database, which contains more than 700,000 profiles, and can be compared with other samples from the Sarah Payne inquiry.

The spokesman said the service, an independent agency of the Home Office, could call in specialists within different DNA fields if needed.

"We have some good people working on this, who are working on it as fast as they can as it helps police to concentrate their inquiries.

"Everything we do is tempered by the difficulties of getting the profiles but if anybody can do it, we can."

Sarah's parents and her grandfather, Terry, laid flowers at the site where her body was found, police said later.

After leaving six stems of lilies and a small arrangement of lilac and white flowers, they thanked and spoke with the officers involved in the search team for their efforts in trying to solve Sarah's murder.

About a dozen bouquets have been laid at the spot, along with soft toys and teddy bears from local families, children and police officers.

One note attached to a floral tribute summed up how the 17-day hunt for Sarah captured the hearts of the nation.

It simply read: "We never met you but we won't forget you."

Other messages included the term "little princess"' which her mother often used during the numerous emotional appeals the family made in the media.

Sussex Police switchboard has been jammed with calls from members of the public wanting to know where they can leave flowers in memory of Sarah, a police source said.

An area on the A29 has now been set aside for the small tributes. Flowers can also be left at Littlehampton police station but police have requested that the phone lines are kept clear.