Police investigating allegations of historical sexual abuse in the north Wales care system have said 275 people have come forward to report that they were assaulted or mistreated.

By the beginning of this month, 120 names or partial names of possible offenders had been provided to detectives and 49 potential suspects identified, the National Crime Agency (NCA) said.

The number of alleged victims continues to rise almost two years after the government ordered the police to investigate claims of abuse of vulnerable young people who lived at children’s homes in the 1970s and 80s. They include men and women who were as young as six when they were allegedly abused.

Of the 49 potential suspects identified, 21 have been arrested, seven attended a police station voluntarily and 16 appear to have died. The NCA, which is leading the inquiry, said officers were continuing to search for the remainder in the UK and abroad.

Ten people have been charged. The latest appeared in crown court this month accused of indecently assaulting a boy aged 13 or 14 between 1986 and 1988. The first trial is due to begin in the autumn.

The inquiry, codenamed Operation Pallial, was announced in November 2012 by the home secretary, Theresa May, following a discredited BBC Newsnight report in which a former children’s home resident claimed he had been abused by a senior Conservative from the Thatcher era.

The late Lord McAlpine was widely identified on Twitter and elsewhere on the internet as the Tory referred to, until a Guardian investigation concluded that he was the victim of mistaken identity.

By then dozens of people had come forward to say they had variously been sexually abused, beaten and tortured at children’s homes. Some complained about how their allegations were investigated by North Wales police at the time. There was also criticism about the scope of an inquiry led by the late Sir Ronald Waterhouse into the scandal.

Operation Pallial is examining alleged abuse at 28 care homes. Its investigation is expected to continue into next year and beyond. Officers believe more victims could come forward and expect to make further arrests.

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