LONDON — Two 10-year-old boys were charged Saturday with the kidnaping and brutal slaying of 2-year-old James Bulger in a depressed suburb of Liverpool--a crime that horrified and outraged Britain.
The boys also were accused of attempting to abduct another 2-year-old boy earlier in the day in the same area.
The killing of the toddler has dominated the news in this country for days and prompted editorials suggesting that the savage attack was a reflection of an increasingly ugly side of British society, with women and children often the victims.
Many in Liverpool and elsewhere asked how a 2-year-old could be dragged off in the middle of a busy shopping area without anyone realizing something was seriously wrong.
One woman said she approached the child, who had bruises, but that the older boys said they were taking him to a police station.
Formal accusations against the two young suspects were made late Saturday after three days of questioning by police in Merseyside, the metropolitan area that incorporates Liverpool, a major port in western England about 180 miles northwest of London.
The police did not reveal details or the motivation for the crime--the talk of the country for the past week--because of the two boys' ages. The suspects are expected to appear Monday before a magistrate who will decide the next step in the case.
James was abducted Feb. 12 in a shopping mall in Bootle, a dockside neighborhood in Liverpool's northern suburbs, on a busy Friday night as his mother, Denise, 25, shopped in a butcher store, leaving the boy momentarily unattended.
When she turned to find him, the child had disappeared. Witnesses and security cameras, which had recorded the abduction, indicated that two older boys had dragged James--or escorted him between them--through the crowded shopping center.
After an intensive search, James' body was found two days later next to a local railroad track. The child appeared to have been beaten to death and then run over by a train.
Police did not release precise details of the injuries, except to say that the boy appeared not to have been sexually molested.
A massive hunt was launched to find the killers. Close-ups of the abductors' faces and clothing recorded by security cameras were enhanced by the latest high-tech electronics at the Ministry of Defense in London and shown on television nationwide to help identify the suspects.
The two boys were picked up Thursday from their homes in the Liverpool area and have been undergoing low-key questioning at separate police stations in the presence of their parents, lawyers and social workers.
The police say they have been careful with their questioning because any hint of browbeating or even excessive leading in interrogation could jeopardize cases involving minors.
"You have to appreciate that we are dealing with very young children here," a police spokesman said.
In England and Wales, 10 is the youngest age at which a child can be charged with a crime. The law considers children below that age unaware of the consequences of their actions.
Children ages 10 to 14 can be convicted of a criminal offense only if the prosecution can prove that they knew that what they were doing was wrong.
While the police have not released the names of the accused 10-year-olds, their identity is an open secret in their neighborhoods and familiar to local reporters covering the case.
The boys are said to be from broken homes; both of their fathers have left their families and their mothers are said to be heavy drinkers.
One of the arrested youngsters reportedly has a local reputation as a bully who has often picked on younger children, and is described as "the instigator of any trouble in the street."
The other is said to be a cherub-faced boy who comes from a large family, with several brothers under institutional care. He is reported to be a problem child.
The home of one of the boys is near the railroad where young James' body was found.
Neighbors reportedly recognized the two suspects from the videotapes shown on television.
Saturday, at the entrance to the mall where James disappeared, shoppers, many weeping, gathered around a pile of bouquets commemorating the slain boy. Mothers at the mall held their children's hands tightly, letting go long enough for the children to drop coins into donation buckets for James' family.