Paedophiles who prey on youngsters worldwide

The investigation into an alleged paedophile ring operating from Belgium highlights the growing phenomenon of the international child abuser.

The discovery of the bodies of two eight-year-old girls in a garden in southern Belgium is the latest child-sex scandal to hit the country. A former official from the Justice Ministry and the director of a children's charity were among 16 people convicted in Belgium's biggest child-sex case.

Police and experts on sex offending have noted the development of international links between paedophile groups.

Ray Wyre, an adviser on sexual abuse for the British-based Lucy Faithfull Foundation, said paedophile cells operated throughout Europe, and can range from a few people to about 20 abusers. "We have seen a resurgence of paedophiles in Europe. Often they meet via clubs, Holland is particularly popular, or through personal contacts," he said.

In December last year a former Briton living in Belgium died from a heart attack before reaching court on child-sex charges. John Stamford, 56, was due to face charges in Belgium alleging he provided information on child prostitutes to paedophiles around the world.

Stamford was alleged to have used a homosexual travel guide, Spartacus, as a front for a mailing service offering information on child prostitution in Thailand, Brazil and the Philippines. The organisation was alleged to have operated through a box number in London. The details of each of the members, including their sexual preferences, the desired age of the children and preferred countries of origin were stored on a computer. The members received personalised lists of children.

Paedophile groups, of which there are an estimated 200 in Britain, will go to great lengths to cultivate the trust of their victims. This was illustrated last month when Steven Mitchell, 44, from Walton-on-Thames, became the first Briton to be convicted in the Philippines under new laws aimed at "sex tourists". Mitchell was jailed for 17 years after he was found guilty of sexually molesting two boys, aged eight and four. He had befriended a poor Filipino couple and paid for improvements to their house in order to gain access to their sons.

An estimated 200,000 Nepalese children have been sold into sexual slavery in India; in Thailand up to a quarter of a million children work in brothels; and in Colombia one third of prostitutes are thought to be under 14.

But it is the Internet which many police officers believe is becoming the biggest danger, as paedophiles use it to transfer detailed information about children.

Belgium's worst case involving paedophiles came to court in 1988 when 16 people, including the former head of the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund for Belgium, were sentenced for up to 10 years in jail. Several adults who had lent their children to adults for sex were among the defendants. Phillipe Carpentier, a former Justice Ministry official, was sentenced to nine years.

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