Police and prosecutors from across Europe have arrested 92 suspects allegedly linked to a network that produced and sold child abuse videos to 2,500 customers around the world, authorities said on Monday.
The videos, ranging from girls in provocative poses to a father raping his young daughters, were sold to clients in 19 countries including teachers, doctors, lawyers and computer experts, prosecutors said.
The 23 victims, aged nine to 16, were mainly Ukrainian girls duped into performing sex acts with promises of modeling careers.
The 15-month probe -- code-named Operation Koala -- was triggered by the Australian police discovery in July last year of a video depicting a Belgian father raping his daughters, aged nine and 11, said Menno Hagemeijer of the serious crime department of pan-European police organization Europol.
The huge investigation should "give a really clear signal to everybody that this activity is illegal, unacceptable and revolting," Belgian prosecutor Michele Coninsx said.
"It is touching on the lives and souls of youngsters who cannot speak for themselves," Coninsx said.
As of Monday morning, 92 suspects had been arrested, most of them in coordinated raids last month, and nine remained in custody. The alleged mastermind, Italian Sergio Marzola, and the Belgian suspected of abusing his children, were arrested last year.
Many of those arrested and released have been charged. In France, 20 people have had preliminary charges filed against them, prosecutors there said last week.
Michael Kennedy, president of Eurojust, a group that coordinates the work of EU prosecutors, paid tribute to the close cooperation of police and prosecutors across the continent. He said the ongoing investigation was likely to lead to more arrests.
Marzola, 42, allegedly made some 150 videos in Ukraine, the Netherlands and Belgium.
He was arrested last year in Bologna a day before he was due to move permanently to Ukraine, where prosecutors say he ran a studio for producing the abuse films.
Police say Marzola sold the videos online.
Customers mainly paid via the Internet and were sent links and passwords allowing them to download the films, Hagemeijer said.
Those from countries with slow Internet connections sent cash and were mailed DVDs. When police raided Marzola's home, they found 70,000 euros (US$100,000) in cash.
Some of Marzola's customers also sent requests for particular poses and even slips of paper bearing their names for "models" in the videos to hold, Hagemeijer said. Others sent underwear for them to wear and Marzola allegedly auctioned off the lingerie used in some of his shoots.
Customers paid extra to be present while films were shot, while others sent gifts of poetry and jewelry to their favorite girls.