At least 2,360 people in 77 countries are suspected of trying to download videos of young children being sexually abused and even raped, according to authorities who intercepted the illicit material on a Web server in Austria.
The FBI was investigating about 600 of the suspects in the US, Interior Minister Guenther Platter said on Wednesday. German authorities were following leads on another 400 people, France was looking into more than 100 others, and 23 suspects were Austrians, he said.
Platter said the videos included images that showed "the worst kind of child sexual abuse."
"Girls could be seen being raped, and you could also hear screams," said Harald Gremel, an Austrian police expert on Internet crime who headed the investigation, adding that the children were aged 14 and under.
"One can explicitly see sexual acts with children," Gremel said.
No Austrian suspects were yet in custody, authorities said, adding that they shared their information with law enforcement agencies in other countries in the hope suspects could be investigated.
Gremel said he could not provide details about investigations outside Austria, but said that cooperation with Russian authorities had intensified over the past two weeks.
Gremel said 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 link to the videos was posted on a Russian Web site, which is no longer in operation. The videos, hosted on the Austrian server, were freely accessible, but users had to pay US$89 by credit card to access more pornographic material in a "members only" area on the Russian Web site.
Within 24 hours, the man recorded more than 8,000 hits from 2,361 computer IP addresses in 77 countries, ranging from Algeria to South Africa, Gremel told reporters.
He said the man blocked access to the videos while recording the IP addresses of people who continued to try to download the material, and gave the details to authorities.
In Austria, the possession of pornographic material showing children 14 and under is punishable by up to two years in prison. Possession of material showing children aged 14-18 carries a maximum one-year sentence.
Germany's Federal Criminal Office said about 200 suspects linked to the case in Germany had been identified and were facing prosecution.
Gremel said that in Austria, the youngest person implicated was 17 and the oldest was 69, with the suspects ranging from students to retirees.
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. However, Gremel noted that one girl also looked Asian.
The large amount of video material available on the Internet made it more difficult for authorities to track it down, Gremel said.
In Austria, authorities seized 31 PCs, seven laptops, 1,232 DVDs and CDs, 1,428 diskettes and 213 video cassettes, Gremel said. Police displayed some of the seized material at Wednesday's news conference.
Austrian authorities have yet to evaluate a total of about 8 terabytes of space on hard disks, DVDs, CDs and diskettes seized, Gremel said.
Of the Austrian suspects, 14 allegedly have admitted they downloaded the videos, he said.
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