Autopsies reveal Belgian girls were both strangled

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The bodies of seven-year-old Stacy Lemmens and 10-year-old Nathalie Mahy were recovered on Wednesday in a storm drain alongside a railway line in Liège, not far from the spot from which they vanished almost three weeks ago.

Yesterday their parents were given the results of a post- mortem examination which showed both girls had been strangled and that the elder child had been raped.

Identical coffins carrying the remains of the two girls left the city's medical institute yesterday afternoon bound for an undertaker's parlour.

Nathalie's funeral will take place tomorrow in private at Cointe; Stacy will be buried on Monday after a service at Sainte-Foy church where she was baptised.

With memories still fresh of the child-sex crimes committed by Marc Dutroux in the 1990s, Belgian police are under pressure to close the case quickly to end speculation that a paedophile ring remains in operation.

A team of 20 forensic scientists examined the bodies, searching for proof to link the murders with the police's only suspect, Abdullah Aid Oud, a 38-year-old convicted child rapist who is being held in custody. None had been made public last night and it was unclear how much scientific evidence had been recovered from the decomposing bodies which spent days immersed in water.

The prime suspect in the killings, who has already been charged with kidnapping the girls, was remanded in custody. Mr Aid Oud denies involvement and his lawyer has pressed for his release, arguing that there is no proof against him. But the court was convinced that there was sufficient circumstantial evidence to hold him. This includes witnesses placing him near the spot from which the children disappeared, the fact that he then shaved his head in an apparent effort to alter his appearance, that scratches were found on his body and that he has a record of child-sex crimes.

Yesterday, mourners laid flowers and placed candles near the spot where the remains of Stacy and Nathalie were discovered. Psychologists were provided to help the friends of the two girls to come to terms with their deaths.

Nathalie and Stacy went missing at a street party in the rundown Saint-Léonard district at around 1.30 am on 10 June. Mr Ait Oud was seen near the two girls at the Aux Armuriers café where their parents were drinking. Released from prison last December, Mr Aid Oud is the boyfriend of an employee of the café where the girls were last seen alive.