Thailand nabs hunted Canadian paedophile suspect

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BANGKOK, Oct 19 (Reuters) Canadian paedophile suspect Christopher Neil, unmasked by nifty computer work by German police and a unique Interpol Internet appeal, was arrested in rural Thailand today after a week-long manhunt.

Thai police said they had picked up the 32-year-old, accused of raping young boys in Vietnam and Cambodia several years ago, in the province of Nakhon Ratchasima, 250 km (150 miles) northeast of Bangkok and well off the normal tourist trail.

Neil was no stranger to Thailand, having once taught in a Bangkok language school, but his hiding place was revealed by a trace on the cellphone of his Thai boyfriend, tourist police chief Chuchart Suwannakom told Reuters.

''They went together to different provinces, probably on the run, and the last call made was from Nakhon Ratchasima,'' Chuchart said. ''So I sent my men there.'' Thai police issued a warrant for Neil's arrest on Thursday, a week after he fled South Korea, after two Thai teenagers accused him of paying for oral sex when they were 9 and 14, grounds for prosecution under Thai law.

He was to be paraded before reporters at national police headquarters in Bangkok later today.

Neil could face up to 20 years in jail if convicted in Thailand and a senior policeman said he would be prosecuted in Bangkok, but left open the possibility he could be extradited once he had served his sentence.

''He will be prosecuted in Thailand first, before he serves time in other countries,'' Deputy Police Commissioner Panya Mamen told Reuters.

Canada -- which can prosecute its citizens for child sex crimes committed abroad, but has rarely done so -- has not said if it plans to seek Neil's extradition.

''We are aware an arrest has been made and we will offer consular services as necessary,'' a spokesman for the Canadian embassy in Bangkok said.

Cambodia and Vietnam might also want to question him.

''SWIRLY FACE'' Detectives in various countries had been trying to track Neil down since German police discovered photographs on the Internet three years ago of a man sexually abusing 12 boys in Vietnam and Cambodia.

His face had been scrambled with a digital swirling pattern, but German police computer experts managed to unravel the disguise and Interpol issued an unprecedented worldwide appeal through the Internet for information on who the man was.

More than 350 people came forward and Neil was identified by five sources from three different continents, Interpol said.

Neil abruptly left South Korea, where he was teaching, after Interpol broadcast his cleaned-up photograph and flew to Thailand, where he was photographed with shaved head and glasses by airport security cameras.

Thailand and its neighbours immediately alerted border posts in case he tried to sneak across a land frontier as Thai police launched a manhunt to rival their search a year ago for JonBenet Ramsey murder suspect John Mark Karr.

Karr was arrested in a run-down Bangkok hostel and sent back to the United States, where he was eventually cleared of any involvement in Ramsey's murder, one of America's most infamous unsolved crimes.

REUTERS SYU DS1400

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