French couple before judge over deaths of eight babies

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The suspected parents of eight newborn babies whose skeletal remains were found in gardens in a sleepy French village appeared before a magistrate Thursday.

The pair, both about 45, were taken in a police van to the northern town of Douai to face probable charges later in the day in what judicial officials said could be the country's biggest infanticide case.

The woman works as a nursing assistant while her husband worked in the building trade and is a respected member of the local village council in Villers-au-Tertre, a 700-strong farming community.

"He's on his third term in office. He used to volunteer in the community. He's a respectable man," local mayor Patrick Mercier told reporters.

Mercier said the councillor's wife was a more withdrawn person who rarely took part in village life and had a weight problem, which he speculated might be the reason why any pregnancies had passed unnoticed.

"No-one was aware of anything at all," he stressed, visibly shocked.

On Wednesday, police used sniffer dogs to search two addresses after the new owners of a home found the bones of two infants while digging in their garden.

The house previously belonged to the parents of the arrested woman.

Search teams then headed on to the couple's home in another part of the village, where six more sets of remains were found, a local councillor told reporters.

Gendarmes were deployed outside the house where the babies' bodies were found, and sealed off the entrance to the macabre scene with plastic sheeting.

"I'm still in shock," said a former mayor of Villers-au-Tertre, Daniel Collignon, describing the village as a very calm and rural place.

Neighbours also reacted with astonishment. "They are normal people, who even have a role in the community," said one. "It's incredible."

Another neighbour, a man in his 50s, added: "These are attractive, helpful, polite and courteous people, who did nothing to make you think them capable of anything abnormal.

"The husband was even elected to the town council," he added.

As journalists arrived, the man, like several other neighbours who preferred not to be identified, insisted that the couple should be not be judged in advance by the media.

The couple had two grown-up daughters and were grandparents, said another local resident.

Laura and Charlene, two 17-year-olds from the village said the couple's daughters were nice girls. One described the mother as a simple, quiet woman "who wouldn't harm a fly."

Neighbours said they had lived in the village for at least 15 years.

The incident is just the latest in a string of similar cases in France.

The most notorious recent incident was Veronique Courjault, who in June 2009 was jailed for eight years by a court in Tours, central France.

She admitted to having smothered two baby boys born in secret at her expatriate home in South Korea in 2002 and 2003, and a third child born in France in 1999.

She was freed in May 2010, having served four years in jail after the time she spent in remand since her arrest.

© 2010 AFP

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