By Bernhard Warner, European Internet Correspondent
LONDON (Reuters) - Police from Britain, North America and Australia launched a crackdown on Internet pedophiles Thursday with a sting using fake, child-porn Web sites.
They said "Operation Pin" is the largest international drive yet to curtail the growing online marketplace for child pornography.
At a London news conference, detectives provided grisly details of a brisk international trade. The most extreme sites charge visitors to view adults abusing children in actual time and encourage them to type in suggestions on torture tactics, police said.
With investigators across the world swamped by child porn cases, Operation Pin represents a new twist with police taking the offensive by warning both hard-core pedophiles and curiosity-seekers that they are committing a crime.
"What we are saying is the Internet is now a hostile place. If you are a pedophile and you are out there, we are going to make it much more difficult to operate," said assistant chief constable Jim Gamble for the UK's National Crime Squad.
FISHING FOR PEDOPHILES
As part of the sting, police are to set up sites that purport to contain child porn images.
Visitors will be given the choice of proceeding through a series of Web pages that ultimately lead to a law enforcement site where they are informed their details have been captured and that they could be prosecuted.
Information on repeat offenders could be shared through Interpol with a network of 181 police forces. Police stressed they would not be posting pornographic images on the fake Web sites, but said they would be designed to look like the real thing to ensnare as many offenders as possible.
Operation Pin is being launched amid a fresh row in Britain over how police handle criminal investigation details of sex crime suspects.
The Home Office has called for an inquiry into how police checks of a man convicted of murdering ten-year-old girls Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman failed to reveal he was the subject of multiple sex crime allegations, none of which resulted in a conviction.
The man, Ian Huntley, was sentenced Wednesday to two life prison terms for the murders.
Developed by the UK's West Midlands police force, "Operation Pin" will be deployed by U.S, Australian, Canadian and UK police. They declined to say when the sites would be launched.
Other European countries, including Germany, have expressed interest in joining the operation, police said.
"This is the first time we've come together on this scale to use the Internet as a tool to combat child crimes," said Edward Gibson, assistant legal attache for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Gibson added that the crackdown will likely do little to stop the hard-core pedophiles who tend to collect and distribute images in murkier corners of the Internet, including private file-sharing networks.
But, he said, it could deter the curious from participating.
There have been a series of recent arrests made, most recently in Spain and Germany, where child porn collectors and peddlers have been ensnared in multi-country cyber drag nets.
The most notable bust came in 1999 when U.S. postal inspectors took the Landslide Web site offline, netting police a long list of collectors. The names of more than 7,000 were sent to British authorities in what police there refer to as Operation Ore.