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Police yesterday reported on a case of two 12-year-old girls who were raped and forced to have sex with a group of boys aged 11 to 14, over the course of a year. The abuse was discovered only when one of the girls went to the principal of her elementary school, who then called in the police.

All the children live in the same community in the coastal plain, and the acts are believed to have been committed in various places around the community.

One of the girls went to the principal's office a month ago and said she had something to tell her, at which point she began describing what had been going on over the past year. The girl said a group of boys, some from her school and some from other schools in the town, had been forcing her to have sex with them. She said the boys threatened to hurt her if she refused, and would spread rumors about her around the community and put pictures of her on the Internet. "One of the threats was that if she did not agree to have sex with them, they would tell her parents that she smoked," said a source involved in the investigation.

The principal hurried to inform the police, who opened an investigation together with the local welfare authorities. "They would rape the girl and perform indecent acts on her in public parks, shelters, stairwells and also in their homes when their parents were not there," said Chief Inspector Yisrael Klein, the investigating officer from the Rehovot police station, which is in charge of the investigation.

"During the investigation, we discovered another girl who had fallen victim to the group, who was also forced to have sex with the same boys, all but three of whom are under 12," said Klein. The police suspect that in a number of cases, one of the boys, whose total number is 12, would have relations with her while his friends looked on, and then the others would follow suit.

"This is one of the most serious cases we have run across, a very difficult and complicated investigation," said Klein. "These children, it seems, were exposed to material on the Internet and in the media that influenced them in the very worst way," he added.

While investigating, the police also discovered three other girls from the same school who claimed to be victims of the same gang of boys, but it seems there is insufficient evidence of crimes relating to those girls. The three older boys were placed under house arrest and the police expect to file serious indictments against them despite their age. The other boys, 11 years old, are being handled by the welfare authorities - and have continued to attend school. Minors under 12 are not considered criminally liable for their acts and cannot be tried in the courts.

The principal told Haaretz that the events all took place outside of school and were discovered while another matter at the school was being investigated. She said she was satisfied with how the matter was handled: "I was informed about the children during an investigation of disciplinary matters - and then it came out. I immediately went to the police," she said. As to the atmosphere in the school, she said: "We are just fine, we feel good about it. We did what we had to and acted as we should have. I feel I did everything I could and am pleased with that. I hope [the children] will have activities supervised by parents in the afternoon," the principal said.

Children at the school were surprised yesterday afternoon by all the reporters who had shown up in the wake of the police announcement. They said they did not know about the story. One of the mothers who arrived to pick up her daughter said she had heard nothing about the matter, while others expressed total shock on hearing the story.

City hall of the town involved released the following statement: "A complaint was filed with the police by the principal. The mayor was involved and instructed the professional bodies in the social services division, the psychological services and pedagogical committees to do everything possible to provide professional treatment for those involved."

A teacher from the same area was convicted two months ago of having sex with a 14-year- old pupil, and sentenced to six months of public service. The police said they found no connection between the two cases, and that the minors never mentioned the other case.

The Education Ministry said the suspicions came to light as part of an educational program in school called "Life Skills," in which students discuss issues such as violence, smoking and sexual behavior. The ministry said that it would "act in accordance with the [police] findings and in cooperation with the municipality."