Police in Germany say they have disproved allegations they covered up a 13-year-old girl’s gang-rape by asylum seekers in Berlin.
The teenager disappeared on her way to school in the suburb of Marzahn-Hellersdorf on 11 January and re-appeared the following day.
A missing person’s appeal was cancelled but the case became the subject of conspiracy theory claims days later when Russian media reported that she had been imprisoned for 30 hours and raped by migrants.
Relatives of child, who The Independent is choosing not to name, spoke to anti-immigration rallies to allege three “southern-looking” foreign men who spoke broken German kidnapped and abused her.
But on Friday, prosecutors in Berlin announced that mobile phone tracking data disproved the account.
“We were able to access information about a young German man aged 19 - an acquaintance of the 13-year-old girl,” spokesperson Martin Steltner told AFP.
“The young girl wanted to hide at his house because she was having problems in school.”
Although no evidence of forced sexual relations were found, prosecutors opened an investigation into possible statutory rape charges because the girl is under the age of consent, which is 14 in Germany.
Mr Steltner said that investigators now believe that she had had sex with two men in their 20s, “a Turkish citizen and a German of Turkish origin” who may now be charged.
Police had initially said there was no evidence of a crime and appealed for people to “handle the subject sensitively” on social media as conspiracy theories spread, with videos and Facebook posts being viewed millions of times.
Interest spiked after Russia’s state-owned Channel One television broadcast an interview with a woman identifying herself as the girl’s aunt, claiming police had orchestrated a cover-up and tried to silence the Russian family.
Far-right groups in Germany and around the world seized on the rumours to argue for an immediate halt to migration, as anger continued over the sexual assaults in Cologne.
Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, stepped into the row earlier this week by accusing Germany of “covering up the reality for some domestic politically-correct reason“.
His German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier accused Russia in turn of exploiting the case for ”political propaganda“ and to influence a debate about immigration to Germany, which registered 1.1 million asylum seekers in 2015.
Frank Henkel, Berlin’s interior senator, said he hoped investigators’ findings would “defuse the propaganda that had developed recently around this case” and said that Germany would uphold the rule of law in the face of “political pressure from abroad”.
Additional reporting by Reuters