Story highlights

Suspects in 20 countries, including U.S., use Facebook and other social network sites

Interpol: The 55 suspects formed groups to show or distribute images of child sexual abuse

Facebook assists in the Interpol investigation

A number of the suspects have been arrested, Interpol says

CNN  — 

An Interpol investigation into social networking groups exchanging child abuse material has targeted 55 key suspects in 20 countries, including the United States, and 12 children have been identified and removed from harm, the agency said Tuesday.

An unspecified number of the suspects have been arrested, said Interpol, the world’s largest international police organization.

The international operation, which targeted child sexual abusers trading online images, identified suspects in 19 other countries: Australia, Bosnia, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, England, Finland, France, Germany, Indonesia, Italy, Mexico, Norway, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, The Netherlands, Tunisia, Turkey, and Venezuela, Interpol said.

The covert online investigation began in October 2010 in New Zealand, where authorities alerted Interpol’s crimes against children team after discovering Facebook, Socialgo and were being used to exchange significant amounts of “abusive and exploitative pictures,” Interpol said in a statement.

Working with U.S. authorities, the Interpol inquiry found about 80 groups “engaged in the display or distribution of previously seen and unseen child sexual abuse images,” Interpol said.

Facebook officials assisted the investigation after authorities identified key targets and their associated groups, Interpol said.

Maarten Quivooy, general manager of New Zealand’s Regulatory Compliance Operations, said the Internet destroys jurisdictional boundaries and that protecting children is now a global responsibility.

“Trading in or viewing these images is … offending because it involves real children often being abused both in real time and over time, and when these images of children being sexually abused are released onto the Internet, they live on forever,” Quivooy said in a statement.

“Terms such as kiddiporn and child pornography make the physical sexual abuse of a child appear consenting. No child is capable of consenting to sexual activity — therefore all sexual depiction of children is abuse,” he said.

Mick Moran, the head of Interpol’s crimes against children unit, said the operation highlighted international cooperation.

“While disrupting these networks is a significant part of the investigation, what is more important is that innocent children and in some cases babies have been rescued from physical abuse,” Moran said in a statement.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton said his agency will “work tirelessly with our international law enforcement partners to protect children wherever they live and to bring justice to criminals wherever they operate.”

The 55 suspects allegedly created groups that posted images of children under age 13 being abused, Interpol said.

CNN’s Michael Martinez contributed to this report.