Belgium announced sweeping changes to its police forces Wednesday in the face of public outrage at their role in the country's festering child murder scandal.

A unified national police force will be created combining paramilitary gendarmerie and the judicial police, Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene said."It is the first time the government has gone so deeply into the reform of the police," he told a news conference after a special Cabinet meeting. "This is a very important step."

Two reports by an all-party parliamentary committee slammed the police and particularly the gendarmes for errors, miscalculations and bungling in the hunt for the abductors of four girls.

The four were found dead and buried in mid-1996 on property belonging to convicted child rapist Marc Dutroux, who had escaped detection up to then despite his criminal record and being under surveillance while holding at least two of the girls prisoner.

The reports found that rivalries between the police forces had meant vital information was withheld and in some cases misleading information passed on.

The new 18,000-strong unified national police force will come under the joint control of the justice and interior ministers, have a single police chief and an overseeing committee of control.