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NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Angry crowds demonstrated in India's capital on Saturday after a five-year-old girl was allegedly raped, tortured and kept in captivity for 40 hours, reviving memories of last December's brutal assault on a woman that shook the country.
Police arrested a man they accuse of the attack from the eastern state of Bihar, and brought him back to New Delhi for interrogation. Doctors say the girl suffered severe injuries and bruising, including to her neck and genitalia.
Protests that began on Friday grew more intense after video footage showed a policeman slapping a woman protester, and following reports that investigators had offered the victim's family 2,000 rupees ($37) not to file a case.
It was the second case of alleged rape in 48 hours to trigger protests and heavy-handed policing, after hundreds of people fought police in the city of Aligarh, 135 km (83 miles) from Delhi on Thursday. One policeman was filmed hitting an old woman hard with a club in the protest.
Public fury over the latest attack in the capital echoed the response to the gang rape of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student on a bus on December 16 in New Delhi, which brought thousands of people onto the streets in protest and clashes with police.
The woman died of her injuries in a Singapore hospital.
The gang rape provoked rare national debate about violence against women, putting the issue onto the political agenda in the nation of 1.2 billion people a year before elections.
On Saturday, about 1,000 people gathered to demonstrate outside the police headquarters in New Delhi, where several people tried to break through metal barricades. Smaller protests erupted outside the state-run hospital where the girl was being treated, the home of ruling Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi, and the residence of the country's interior minister.
The girl was "conscious and alert" and her condition stable, but her injuries are infected and so severe she may need corrective surgery, an official of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences hospital told reporters.
Police identified the accused as a 22-year-old, who they said had fled the capital after leaving the girl for dead in an apartment of the same building where her family lives.
The accused was a temporary worker in garment factories and lived with his father, a juice seller, police said. TV news channels reported that some people tried to attack the man and others threw shoes at him as police led him through Patna airport in Bihar state to board a plane back to New Delhi.
Police spokesman Rajan Bhagat declined to comment on reports that the girl's family had been offered money not to file a case, adding he would only do so after an investigation.
Interior minister Sushil Kumar Shinde said the government was conducting an inquiry into allegations of police negligence.
The girl, whose parents work as laborers and live in a slum in the outskirts of Delhi, went missing from her home on April 15, according to Manish Sisodia, an official of the Aam Aadmi Party, which organized a protest on Friday. Local media said she was found by neighbors who heard her crying two days later.
B.N. Bansal, a doctor from the Swami Dayanand Hospital, where the girl was initially admitted, said on Friday that she had undergone an operation due to severe injuries.
"We found candles and an oil bottle from inside the child when we operated upon her," Bansal told reporters. "The next 48 hours will be crucial for her."
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's office said in a statement that he was deeply disturbed by the latest incident. In December his administration had faced criticism for failing to respond quickly to the horrific attack on the physiotherapy student.
The unprecedented protests by thousands of people across India eventually forced Singh's government to pass tougher laws to fight gender crimes in March.
New Delhi has the highest number of sex crimes among India's major cities, with a rape reported on average every 18 hours, according to police figures.
However, most sex crimes in India go unreported, many offenders go unpunished, and the wheels of justice turn slowly, according to social activists who say successive governments have done little to ensure the safety of women and children.
Activists said the new laws are not enough to deter sex offenders in India's largely patriarchal societies.
"You need community policing to stop these crimes," activist Kiran Bedi told an Indian TV channel.
The U.N.'s child rights arm, UNICEF, said that tougher laws are no use if they are not enforced effectively.
"The brutal rape case this week unfortunately also indicates the need to strongly improve the response of law enforcement officers," it said in a statement. ($1 = 54.0750 Indian rupees)
Writing by John Chalmers; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani