A five-year-old Indian girl was battling for her life on Friday after being kidnapped and brutally raped in the latest incident of sexual violence which has triggered nationwide protests.
The girl was attacked inside a locked room over at least a 48-hour period, police said, after being abducted as she played outside on Monday in a lower-middle class area of the capital New Delhi.
"We initially registered a case of kidnapping. We have now launched a preliminary inquiry into rape and attempted murder," Rajan Bhagat told AFP, adding a hunt was on to catch a family neighbour who is the main accused.
The child, found after a passerby heard her cries and alerted the police, was admitted to the intensive care unit of a city hospital Wednesday and doctors said her condition was "critical" as news channels provided wall-to-wall coverage.
The incident comes just months after India was shaken by the horrific gang-rape of a student in Delhi on a bus last December that triggered countrywide demonstrations and debate over the status of women and girls and their safety.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in a late night statement said he was "deeply disturbed" over the rape of the child, calling it a "shameful incident", and asked society "to work to root out the evil of rape and other such crimes".
He also voiced anger over police treatment of some women who demonstrated against the incident, saying it was "completely unacceptable". Local media reported a policeman was suspended after repeatedly slapping a young protester.
R.N. Bansal, medical superintendent of a government hospital which treated the child, said she "was traumatised when she was brought to us. There were injuries to her lips, cheeks and chest wall. There were bruises on her neck."
The injuries to her neck suggested the attacker may have tried to strangle her and left her to die in the room, Bansal told India's NDTV news channel.
Doctors said the girl's genital area had been mutilated and that objects had been inserted inside her, causing serious internal injuries and infection.
"The next few hours are going to be very critical," Bansal said.
The 23-year-old student who was attacked in December succumbed to her injuries 13 days after the assault in which her attackers drove an iron rod inside her, damaging her internal organs.
The parents of the five-year-old girl, who was later moved to a top government hospital in the city, accused the police of being insensitive in their investigation.
"They were reluctant to register our complaint (that she was missing) when we approached them the first time. Then the police asked us to be content with the fact she was at least found alive," the father of the girl said.
Scores of protesters gathered outside the hospital Friday where the child was first admitted and shouted abuse at police for failing to investigate her disappearance properly.
Women's rights activists condemned the attack, saying the injuries inflicted on the girl were shocking.
"This incident shows what kind of brutes do we have in society. Society is also responsible for this. It has become full of perverts," said Ranjana Kumari of the Delhi-based Centre for Social Research.