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Dark web child abuse image site with 400,000 members taken down in global police sting

The three main suspects are accused of founding and maintaining the site, as well as giving members advice on how to avoid arrest, German police said.

LONDON — German police have arrested four members of a gang suspected to be behind one of the world's biggest child abuse image websites with more than 400,000 members worldwide, police and prosecutors said Monday.

A police operation involving regional and federal German officers raided seven addresses across Germany and arrested three men accused of operating Boystown, a platform for distributing indecent images and video of children, the BKA, Germany's federal police agency, said in a statement.

Police also arrested one man in Paraguay, who is due to be extradited to Frankfurt. The arrests took place in mid-April but were announced on Monday.

The site is no longer in operation, the BKA's statement said, adding that an unspecified number of related chat sites were also shut down.

The arrested suspects, who in accordance with German law have not been named, were 40 to 64 years old.

The three suspects arrested in Germany are accused of founding and maintaining the site, as well as giving members advice on how to avoid arrest. One of them, a 64-year-old from Hamburg, is alleged to have personally uploaded more than 3,500 images.

"Furthermore, members of the platform received safety instructions from them for secure surfing on 'Boystown' in order to minimize the risk of discovery by law enforcement authorities," the BKA said.

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The pan-European police agency Europol assisted in the monthslong investigation alongside authorities in the United States, the Netherlands, Sweden, Australia and Canada.

The site was on the dark web, an encrypted series of web pages inaccessible through normal web browsers or search engines.

Police said the site had existed since at least June 2019 and "served the worldwide exchange of child pornography by platform members, whereby mainly recordings of abuse of boys were exchanged."

The site was structured so to allow easy retrieval of images and video of "the most serious sexual abuse of young children," police said.

Two chat areas on the site allowed members to exchange images of abuse in multiple languages.

Europol said in a statement: "Online child offender communities on the dark web exhibit considerable resilience in response to law enforcement actions targeting them.

"Their reactions include resurrecting old communities, establishing new communities, and making strong efforts to organize and administer them."

The case is latest in a long string of global attempts to clamp down on distribution of child abuse images through the dark web. And other raids and arrests could follow in an attempt to shut down other, similar sites.

"There were and there are still several sites similar to Boystown in the darknet. For this reason investigations will go on to identify the responsible persons behind theses dark net sites," said Julia Bussweiler, a public prosecutor, responding to a question from NBC News.

In 2019 federal prosecutors in the U.S. filed multiple charges against a 23-year-old South Korean man accused of running what they call the world's "largest dark web child porn marketplace," with more than 200,000 unique videos.

The dark web has long been associated with a range of criminality, including the sale of drugs and hacked private information.

Several high-profile successful police operations have curbed the activities of illegal marketplaces. In January this year Europol said it had successfully shut down DarkMarket, thought to be among the largest in the world with half a million members and more than 140 million euros ($168 million) in sales to date.

Patrick Smith reported from London, and Carlo Angerer from Munich.