By VERONIKA OLEKSYN
The Associated Press
Wednesday, February 7, 2007; 11:23 AM
VIENNA, Austria -- Austrian authorities said Wednesday they have uncovered a major international child pornography ring involving more than 2,360 suspects from 77 countries, including hundreds in the United States, who paid to view videos of young children being sexually abused.
The children were under the age of 14 and screams could be heard, said Harald Gremel, an Austrian police expert on Internet crime who headed the investigation.
Interior Minister Guenther Platter said the FBI was investigating about 600 of the suspects in the United States. German authorities were following leads on another 400 people, France was looking into about 100 others, and at least 23 suspects were Austrians, he said.
Platter said videos downloaded from the Internet and seized by Austria's Federal Criminal Investigations Bureau included images that showed "the worst kind of child sexual abuse."
Gremel said "girls could be seen being raped, and you could also hear screams." Although officials initially said the children ranged in ages from "0 to 14," Gremel later said no infants were seen in the videos.
No Austrian suspects were yet in custody, authorities said, adding that they shared their information with law enforcement in other countries in hopes that suspects could be investigated and charged. Gremel said he could not provide details about investigations outside Austria, but noted that cooperation with Russian authorities had intensified over the past two weeks.
The investigation began in July when a man working for a Vienna-based Internet file hosting service approached authorities at the Interior Ministry to say he noticed the pornographic material during a routine check, Gremel said.
The man blocked access to the videos while recording the I.P. addresses of people who continued to try to download the material, and gave the details to authorities. Neither the man nor the Vienna company were identified, and police said neither was implicated in the case.
Within a 24-hour period, investigators recorded more than 8,000 hits from 2,361 computer I.P. addresses in 77 countries ranging from Algeria to South Africa, Gremel told reporters.
The videos were posted on a Russian Web site, and users had to pay $89 to access the material, Gremel said.
He said investigators believed the videos, which included images of girls and boys up to age 14, were made in Eastern Europe and uploaded to the site from somewhere in Britain.
Germany had the largest single number of suspects in Europe, Gremel said.