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Court Seats Jury in Trail of Accused Child Murderer in Belgium - 2004-03-01

A Belgian court has seated a jury of six women and six men on the opening day of the murder trial of a suspected child rapist.

The 47-year-old defendant, Marc Dutroux, is charged with kidnapping six girls and murdering four of them in the mid-1990s. The sensational cases traumatized southeastern Belgium, where the crimes were committed, and shocked the nation.

The defendant, protected by bullet-proof glass, appeared to fall asleep during Monday's proceedings in the town of Arlon. The 12 jurors will hear the testimony of at least 450 witnesses.

Prosecutors say the defendant kept his victims locked in makeshift cells in the basement of his house. The former electrician has denied killing any children.

Three suspected accomplices, including his wife, also are on trial. All were arrested in 1996, but court proceedings were delayed for years while authorities investigated the extent of criminal activities targeting Belgian children.

Prosecutors are hoping testimony will answer a lingering question - whether the defendants were part of a larger pedophile conspiracy involving criminal networks in Belgium and possibly other countries. In a statement broadcast on Belgian television on Sunday, the accused claimed he was a mere cog in a wider pedophile ring.

Widespread public anger over the long delay in bringing the Dutroux case to trial has been aimed at Belgian authorities since the arrests.

Some information for this report provided by AFP, Reuters and AP.