Justice Minister 'sets the record straight' on man questioned by Athlone gardaí

Justice Minister Alan Shatter has confirmed that the man being questioned in connection with an alleged incident in Athlone did not have a criminal record for sex offences against children.

Hundreds of people have come out in support of two young girls who allegedly suffered an horrific sex attack after being lured away from a children's birthday party.

Mr Shatter said on Newstalk radio that he wanted to "set the record straight" to ease people's "genuine and understandable fears and worries".

"What happened here was shocking. My heart goes to the children and their families," he said.

"It is incorrect to suggest that an individual being questioned is someone who has been released from prison following on from their being convicted for committing a sexual offence."

More than 300 protesters gathered in Athlone town centre as detectives continued to question a prime suspect over the incident.

Gardaí will have to charge or release the man, who is aged in his 30s, this afternoon.

Two other men arrested at the scene, a housing estate on the outskirts of the town, were earlier released without charge.

It is understood the youngsters, who are aged six and nine, were lured away from a children's birthday party and attacked by a man.

The alleged sex assaults took place on Saturday afternoon while a group of children were at a house celebrating a friend's birthday.

The girls were playing outside and are believed to have been enticed to a house by a man who was not attending the celebration.

It is believed the girls managed to flee by climbing out of a window and ran back to the house where the party was taking place and raised the alarm.

They were taken to hospital in Galway for medical treatment and to be questioned by specialist gardaí.

Mayor of Athlone Gabrielle McFadden said parents should be able to let their children play in a garden without fear of an attack.

"You'd think they are safe, you can't imagine that," she said.

"You'd think children are safe in their own garden. It's just not right, it's sickening."

Three men were initially arrested for public order offences and taken to Athlone Garda Station after the attack on Saturday afternoon.

They were subsequently taken before a special sitting of the local District Court later that day where they were remanded in custody.

All three were later re-arrested as part of the investigation into the alleged sexual assault and taken back to Athlone Garda Station.

Two of the men who were in the property where the alleged attacks took place were released without charge this morning.

A file has been sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions to assess if they will face charges in the future.

Scores of mothers and parents joined a spontaneous protest near the courthouse in the town to show support to the families of the girls.

Carrying a homemade sign reading "Bring Back Public Hanging" mother-of-one Nicola Quigley said people felt compelled to come out on to the street.

"It's upsetting when something like this happens, a community has to come together," said the 27-year-old from Moate.

"If this happened to my child I would expect the whole town to be here.

"I'm a mother and I mind children and I feel we need to protect our children.

"People should be aware of this and instil it in to their kids not to talk to strangers.

"These are two innocent girls whose lives have been ruined."

Father-of-two Anthony Francis, 32, from Athlone, arranged the protest on social media to highlight the case.

"It's sickening. It's really really sickening," he said holding a sunflower to signify the innocence and beauty of children.

"These poor kids and their families' lives have been destroyed because of one sick act."

Annemarie Nugent, 27, from Athlone, said she came out in support as her own daughter is close in age to the two girls.

"Their lives were taken away on Saturday," she added.

Rape Crisis Network Ireland (RNCI) urged anyone with concerns about the behaviour or activity of someone living in their neighbourhood to contact gardaí.

Fiona Neary, director, said child abduction is traumatic both for the victims and their community but strangers account for only 7% of all reported incidents.

"All communities can act to protect children," she said.

"RCNI urge anyone who has concerns about the behaviour of someone living in their area to talk to the Gardaí in confidence to alert them and pass on any information that may prove useful."

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