Paedophile fears as boy goes missing from camp

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The Independent Online

A shy boy of 10 who disappeared during the night from a children's holiday centre at the mouth of the Loire was probably abducted by a paedophile, French investigators fear.

A shy boy of 10 who disappeared during the night from a children's holiday centre at the mouth of the Loire was probably abducted by a paedophile, French investigators fear.

The disappearance of Jonathan (whose full name cannot be published under French law) from an unlocked bedroom in a holiday camp near Nantes has raised renewed fears about the safety of the extended school trips common in France.

There have been several other incidents in recent years of children being threatened, harmed or abducted while on school or scout trips, including the murder of the 13-year-old British girl, Caroline Dickinson, at a youth hostel in Brittany in 1996. French education officials have admitted there is no official policy, or rule, on the guarding of children in colonies de vacances - or holiday centres - during the night.

Questions are also being raised about the response of the gendarmerie in the Nantes area, who concentrated their efforts for several days on the possibility that Jonathan had run away from the holiday camp at Saint-Brévin-les-Pins, on the southern shore of the Loire estuary. Jonathan vanished from his dormitory wearing only his pyjamas. His clothes and shoes were left behind. His parents, from the departément of Cher in central France told investigators that their son was a timid boy who would not have wandered away on his own.

But an investigation for "criminal abduction" was formally started only on Tuesday, six days after Jonathan disappeared. The gendarmerie said it was normal, in cases of this kind, to concentrate first on the possibility that a child had run away. Most children reported missing in France turned up within three days, they said.

The possibility of an abduction had been covered from the beginning, they added. Investigators had questioned 140 known or suspected sexual offenders in the west of France.

Much of the effort of the 200 officers and volunteers working on Jonathan's disappearance has been concentrated on door- to-door inquiries and searches of the scores of empty holiday homes in Saint-Brévin and neighbouring towns and villages. The local public prosecutor, Pierre-Marie Block, said that the possibility that Jonathan had run away could still not be discounted but "the longer that times goes on, the harder it is to look at things that way". An investigating magistrate and a specialised gendarmerie team have been ordered to organise the inquiry.

Fears have been intensified by the revelation that an intruder entered the holiday camp six years ago and threatened three children, two boys and a girl, at knifepoint. The intruder was disturbed and fled but has never been traced.

Jonathan was on a one-week classe de mer, or "sea class" with fellow pupils of a school in the Cher area. There were five other boys of his age in the dormitory from which he vanished but they saw or heard nothing.

It is common in France for children as young as six to go away on extended school trips, to the seaside, or the mountains or the countryside, where they combine normal lessons with nature studies or learning to sail or ski. Education ministry officials said there were no official guidelines to teachers on whether children should be locked into their bedrooms at night and whether there should be someone guarding the holiday centre at all times.

Although there have been several high-profile child abductions in France, police said there were only 15 unsolved cases of missing children in the past 25 years. Of the 33,670 minors reported missing in 1992, only 627 failed to turn up by the end of the year. Most of the rest are teenagers believed to have run away from home.