by Louise Jury and Matthew BraceBelgian police last night stepped up the hunt for two missing teenage girls, feared to have fallen victim to a paedophile ring, as revelations of child rape and killing shocked the nation.
Detectives said that they believed Ann Marchal, 19, and Eefje Lambreks, 17, were alive. But the search for them has taken on a grim urgency following the discovery of the bodies of two eight-year-olds in the garden of a house near Charleroi, 35 miles from Brussels, and the dramatic rescue of two girls held captive in a dungeon beneath the same house.
The crimes, with their chilling similarity to the Cromwell Street murders in Gloucester, sent shock waves through Belgium where 15 children have gone missing in the past five years. There were angry scenes across the country and calls for the reintroduction of the death penalty.
The story unfolded after police raided the home of Marc Dutroux, 39, an electrician, whose van had been spotted in the area where Laetitia Delheze, aged 14, was kidnapped 10 days ago. Dutroux had been jailed for raping underage girls in 1989 but was released after three years because of his good behaviour.
Although two previous police visits to his home in Sars-la-Buiiere had revealed nothing, Dutroux finally confessed and on Thursday he showed officers the underground prison where Laetitia was being held with another missing girl, Sabine Dardenne, 12, who was kidnapped on 28 May.
Sabine and Laetitia were both described as being in reasonable health, although they had been sexually abused. But with the investigation showing signs of turning into a major child-sex scandal, exhumations at Dutroux’s terraced house then revealed the bodies of Julie Lejeune and Melissa Russo, both eight, who disappeared in June last year after they went out to play together.
Dutroux told detectives the girls had starved to death in the first few months of this year while he was in police custody on an unrelated matter. A third body discovered in the garden was that of a man believed to be an associate of Dutroux’s.
Dutroux was present at the exhumations on Saturday and was taken away by helicopter to avoid the gathering crowds. Michelle Martin, his second wife, and Michel Lelievre were among another five people who were arrested in raids on 11 houses on Friday night and Saturday.
Dutroux and Mr Lelievre have been charged with the abduction and illegal imprisonment of Sabine and Laetitia. They will appear in court today. Ms Martin is also expected to appear.
The crimes bear haunting similarities to those carried out by Fred and Rosemary West and they have prompted fears that the police might have stumbled upon one link in an international paedophile chain which is “exporting” children around the world.
But the discovery of Laetitia Delheze and Sabine Dardenne alive in the cellar has at least provided some hope that Eefje and Ann might also still be alive. Dutroux has told detectives that he abducted the two girls on the Belgian coast last summer.
Police digging at Dutroux’s house fear they will unearth more bodies. A total of 14 girls and one boy have disappeared in Belgium during the last five years. Of these, seven have been found dead and six are still missing. Only the two rescued on Thursday have been found alive.
Last night, the parents of Julie Lejeune and Melissa Russo, whose bodies were found in Dutroux’s garden, attacked the authorities for not finding the pair alive during earlier searches. They blamed the authorities’ doubts about links between a series of cases of missing children and sex criminals for the failure. Both sets of parents had travelled the world following tip-offs about their daughters, including a visit to South America.