Austrians were in a state of shock last night after the arrest of a 73-year-old man suspected of sexually abusing his daughter and fathering her seven children. He allegedly abducted her at the age of 11 and held her prisoner in a basement dungeon for 24 years.
The case has strong similarities to the kidnap of Natascha Kampusch, a Viennese girl held in a basement for eight years from the age of 10 before she escaped in August 2006.
Police in the town of Amstetten, in Lower Austria, identified the 73-year-old man only as Josef F. They said that he had been arrested on suspicion of incest and holding his daughter, now aged 42, captive in the basement of his home.
Franz Polzer, a police spokesman, described how Josef's daughter, Elisabeth, emerged with two of her children, both boys, from the house on Saturday after they were tracked down by police. "The two boys saw daylight for the first time in their lives," he said.
Josef was said to have refused to make any statement to police under questioning and was not co-operating with them.
His arrest followed the sudden appearance of his daughter who had been officially listed as missing since 1984.
Since her dissapearance no driving licence, passport or any other official document has been issued in her name. There are no photographs of her since she was at school and no social welfare files in her name.
Police said they were alerted to Elisabeth's fate late last week by her 19-year-old daughter, Kerstin, who fell ill and had to be taken to hospital for treatment. Elisabeth and her daughter were said to be in hospital receiving medical and psychological treatment last night. Kerstin was said to be seriously ill and "fighting for her life".
Doctors had appealed through the media for her mother to come forward. The six children were said to be three boys and three girls, aged between five and 20. They had been taken to a safe location. A seventh child died soon after birth, police said.
Police investigators said they had decided to release details of the case after Elisabeth provided them with a statement which contained an account about her alleged abduction and sexual abuse by her father.
"She appeared greatly disturbed and only agreed to talk after she received assurances that she would no longer have to have contact with her father and that her children would be taken care of," said a spokesman.
Police said Elisabeth had told them she had been sexually abused by her father since the age of 11.
He was alleged to have lured her into the cellar of his house in Amstetten in 1984. Photographs of the building show a white townhouse, believed to be near the city centre.
The statement said Josef handcuffed his daughter and drugged her before locking her in his basement.
"She was abused continuously during the 24 years she was held in captivity and bore six children," said a spokesman. "The seventh child, one of two twins, died soon after birth." The statement added that Josef had incinerated the dead baby's body. Police said investigators had now discovered the place where the woman was held captive along with three of her children.
In an interview with Associated Press Television News, Mr Polzer said the area had "several" rooms, an uneven floor and a "very narrow" hallway.
Police found it after Josef gave them a code to unlock a hidden door, Mr Polzer said, adding that the door was "very small" and that it was necessary to bend down to get through. "Everything is very, very narrow and the victim herself, the mother of these six or seven children, told us that this was being continually enlarged over the years," he said.
The area also contained sanitary facilities and "small hot plates" for cooking.
On its website, the Austrian state broadcaster, ORF, reported that the rooms also were at most 1.7 metres (5.6ft) high.
Police picked up Elisabeth and her father on Saturday close to the Amstetten hospital after they received the tip. They said DNA samples of all those involved in the case were being taken to establish the truth behind the allegations made in Elisabeth's statement and whether Josef was the father of her six surviving children.
Josef was said to have locked up three of his daughter's children with their mother and to have provided them with food and clothing during their captivity. The three other children had been living with his daughter's grandparents.
The statement suggested that Josef's wife, named as Rosemarie, had been totally unaware of her husband's activities during the 24 years that her daughter was held prisoner and sexually abused.
Austrian media reports said that Elisabeth had managed to smuggle a note out of her basement prison which suggested that she was in a state of despair.
ORF quoted the note as saying: "Do not search for me, it would be pointless and would only increase my and my children's suffering." Her note was also reported to contain another, obscure remark which was quoted as saying: "Too many children and an education are not wanted there." ORF said this remark had led police to conclude that Elisabeth had fallen into the hands of a religious sect.
Whatever its outcome, the scandal seemed certain to raise further grave questions about the conduct of Austrian police in cases involving missing persons, especially young girls. Vienna police have been subjected to a barrage of criticism over the Kampusch case.
Witnesses have argued that she could have been found and released much earlier if officers had been more thorough in their search methods.
Natascha Kampusch was abducted at the age of 10 in 1998 while walking to school in Vienna. She was held for eight years in a small windowless cellar beneath a garage in the commuter town of Strasshof, 15 miles outside the Austrian capital. She escaped in August 2006.
Her kidnapper, 44-year-old Wolfgang Priklopil, committed suicide by throwing himself under a train shortly afterwards.
There was a mood of stunned disbelief yesterday in Amstetten, a town of about 22,000 people, 80 miles west of the capital, Vienna. "It is so horrible, I can see the house from my balcony and from my window and when I think now of who was in there, I can simply not imagine that," Corina Schmid told ORF as onlookers gathered in the street outside the three-storey building and investigators in white suits continued their search.
"I spoke to [Rosemarie] at Christmas, and she told me they didn't know where the daughter was, she had simply vanished," Margarete Gollonitsch, a neighbour, told the broadcaster.