Man charged over disappearance of two teenage girls

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The Independent Online

Belgium was reliving a nightmare yesterday as a convicted child rapist was charged with the abduction of two missing schoolgirls whose disappearance has recalled the crimes of the country's most notorious child killer.

Police searched empty buildings yesterday and scoured the river Meuse in the hunt for the stepsisters who vanished at the weekend in the eastern city of Liège, where another pair of schoolgirls were snatched more than 10 years ago by the infamous murderer Marc Dutroux.

Last night a Belgian judge formally charged a suspect who has a criminal record for child rape and who surrendered to the authorities on Tuesday after his name and photograph were released in public. Abdallah Ait Oud, 39, had denied involvement in the disappearance of the children.

The prosecutor in Liège, Cedric Visart de Bocarmé, said the interrogation of Mr Ait Oud had not yielded any new clues, but added: "We still hope to find them alive."

The fate Nathalie Mahy, 10, and Stacy Lemmens, seven, has reawakened memories of the abduction a decade ago of the eight-year-olds Julie Lejeune and Melissa Russo.

They were snatched near their homes at Grâce-Hollogne near Liège in June 1995. The youngsters were drugged and sexually abused, before starving to death in the underground cell while Dutroux served a prison sentence for another offence. Dutroux is currently serving a life sentence.

Nathalie and Stacy went missing at a street party in Liège at 1.30am on Saturday and Mr Ait Oud was seen near the two girls at the Armuriers café.

Mr Ait Oud, who was released from prison in December, is the boyfriend of an employee of the café where the girls were last seen. His home has already been searched. However, investigators said they have not ruled out other avenues.

In April 1994, Mr Ait Oud was arrested for the rape of his 14-year-old niece, who had been abused since the age of six. Sentenced to a five-year jail term, with one year suspended, he was arrested again while on parole for rape, assault and kidnapping. On this occasion Mr Ait Oud had forced a 14-year-old girl into his car, hit her over the head with a rock and sexually assaulted her.

As the search continued for the two stepsisters, there was public criticism of Nathalie's mother, Cathérine Dizier, whose four other children were asleep in the café as she took part in the street party. They have now been taken into care.

Nathalie's father, Didier Mahy, was pinning his hopes on the fact that Mr Ait Oud had never killed any of his victims. M. Mahy told La Dernière Heure newspaper: "I know that we will find them alive. In what state I'm not sure, but they will be found alive." Yesterday police were using seven tracker dogs to search homes. A special police boat was brought from Zeebrugge to the Meuse river, which was scoured by divers.

Police are desperate to avoid the errors that characterised their bungled investigation into the Dutroux killings in the 1990s, and which provoked a political crisis in Belgium. As a result of the Dutroux fiasco the entire Belgian police system was revamped.