'This man was freed from prison after three years and began again with the little girls'

At first, the people of Sars-la-Buissiere were horrified. Now they are furious, writes Louise Jury
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The Independent Online
The little girls' faces stare out from the posters. But the appeals for help in finding them have been replaced with two simple words: never again.

As the investigations in Belgium's own house of horror continued yesterday, anger was mounting.

When missing girls Laetitia Delhez, 14, and Sabine Dardenne, 12, were found alive in a makeshift concrete dungeon last Thursday, there was rejoicing. Joy turned to shock, however, when the bodies of eight-year-olds Julie Lejeune and Melissa Russo were exhumed from the garden of convicted rapist Marc Dutroux in Sars-la-Buissiere on Saturday. Their faces had become familiar to all from posters their families had distributed around the country in a desperate attempt to find them. Now the same photographs are on every newspaper's front page.

As the full horror of the child sex scandal became apparent, the mood turned angry. There was fury at Melchior Wathelet, the former Minister of Justice, who allowed the early release from jail ofDutroux, the 39- year-old electrician at the centre of a suspected paedophile ring.

There was bafflement that the police could have visited Dutroux's home in Sars-la-Buissiere near Charleroi in the south of the country and failed to find anything - even when he was arrested and served time for robbery last year.

But most of all there was a raging hatred for Dutroux himself, his second wife Michelle Martin - who was formally charged yesterday with being an accomplice in the abduction and illegal imprisonment of children - and the rest of the gang who have violated children in a country where the family is held sacred. A fourth person, Brussels businessman Jean-Michel Nihoul, is due to appear in court today.

"He should die," said Corallo Sacra, as she gazed at the rising mound of flowers at the drive to Dutroux's home. "For the sake of those little children, he has killed them and he must die. It isn't normal what he did."

It was a sentiment echoed throughout the village, whose 700 citizens can scarcely believe what was going on in their midst.

Dutroux had moved to the village with Ms Martin three or four years ago after his early release on good behaviour from a 13-year sentence for rape.

He had no acquaintances in the village and was regarded as a thief. When items went missing, they had the uncanny knack of finding their way to his house. It was robbery that put him away for the few crucial months last year when Melissa and Julie starved to death in his cellar.

"We knew he was a thief but nobody knew he was convicted for rape. People feel they should have been told. Everybody is shocked," said neighbour William Capian.

Raymond Dougniaux, who lived next door to Dutroux, said: "He had a mechanical digger and he would be digging during the night and in the morning all the holes were full up. It took place from time to time but we never knew what he was digging." Mr Dougniaux said Dutroux kept himself to himself but occasionally displayed a short temper.

In a macabre twist to the story unfolding in Sars-la-Buissiere, an old plaque on the wall overlooking the driveway to Dutroux's house reads: "You who walk by here pray to God for all the dead."

When Dutroux was arrested last Tuesday, people at first thought it was connected to the assorted vehicles of dubious origin he kept in his yard.

As outrage mounts, fuelled by fear that another six children missing in Belgium since 1989 may also have lost their lives to paedophiles, a clear demand is emerging: justice. For some, that is the return of the death penalty, which was formally abolished in 1991. But most want the guilty to stay inside for a very long time.

Alfred Vilain and his wife Alphonsa, had travelled from Lons carrying a petition demanding a penalty to be introduced which was fitting for crimes so incomprehensible. More than a thousand people have signed so far.

"People in Belgium are very angry," Mr Vilain said. "This man was in prison before and he was free after three years inside and began again with the little girls."

Mohammed Taleb, who lives in a village nearby, hugged his two children tightly as he said: "It's horrible. Everybody wants to kill him."

Andre Levacq, the local mayor, said they all felt sadness and revulsion. "For crimes like paedophilia, any attempt on the life, or security or health of children, people who are found guilty should stay in prison for the whole of their sentence," he said.

"We don't want to go back to the Middle Ages, we don't want anything extreme. But we do want justice."

Meanwhile Gloucestershire police, who investigated the Cromwell Street murder inquiry which led to the discovery of the remains of 10 young women and girls at the Gloucester homes of builder Frederick West and his wife Rosemary, were asked yesterday to give advice on the Sars-la-Buissiere case.

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