May 23,

TWO brothers, aged seven and nine, told psychiatrists they slowly, coldly tortured a two-year-old girl to death - a revelation that has Argentines debating whether to do away with a law prohibiting the prosecution of minors for heinous crimes.

Judge Marta Pascual said the children confessed to slaying little neighbour Milagros Belizan in a shantytown south of the capital.

"They understood her pain but it did not move them," Judge Pascualsaid after meeting with psychiatrists who examined the boys. "In some form it gave them pleasure."

Little Milagros disappeared from her home in the poverty-stricken Almirante Brown neighbourhood on Sunday. Her family found her body in a vacant lot 10 blocks away.

She had been stripped naked, beaten and strangled with telephone cord that was found wrapped around her neck.

Argentine law prohibits the prosecution of anyone under 18 years old.

Instead, such juveniles are generally held in youth homes until they reach 18, when they are released without further punishment.

Sunday's killing has many Argentines calling for much harsher punishments - including prosecuting them once they turn 18.

"But if it were up to the people living in the shantytown where that little girl was murdered, they would kill the two boys," lawyer Gregorio Badeni said.

Other Argentines disagreed that child killers should be tried like adults.

"These two boys are victims just like the poor girl they killed," family psychologist Cristina Castillo said.

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photo: Nation shocked ... two boys have explained to psychiatrists how they killed two-year-old Milagros Belizan / AP