FBI acts over child sex on Net

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In its first major crackdown on paedophilia in cyberspace, the FBI has carried out raids and arrested a dozen people for peddling child pornography and soliciting child sex on the largest US computer network service.

Announcing the results of an investigation focused on the 3.5 million- subscriber America Online, the Justice Department declared that bulletin boards and "chat rooms" on computer networks were becoming a means of recruiting children for illegal sex. "We are not going to let an exciting new technology be misused to exploit and injure children," the Attorney- General, Janet Reno, said of the investigation, code-named "Innocent Images".

According to FBI officials, the case began with the abduction of a 10- year-old Maryland boy, George Burdynski, in 1993, apparently lured by computer paedophiles. The boy has never been found. The 12 arrests announced on Wednesday will probably be followed by others.

In addition, four people were detained after they crossed state lines for sexual liaisons with federal agents who posed as children on the network.

America Online's president, Steve Case, said the network had alerted police after subscribers spotted "graphic files" of child pornography. "Any community with more than 3.5 million citizens will have its share of illegal activity," he said. Mr Case said the company could not monitor all members' communications.

Congress is considering a bill outlawing the use of computers for producing and disseminating child pornography.