Ghislaine Maxwell was arrested in New Hampshire on Thursday morning, US officials said © Patrick McMullan/Getty

Ghislaine Maxwell was arrested on Thursday on charges that she helped Jeffrey Epstein sexually abuse underage girls. It is the first major development in a federal investigation that continued after the disgraced financier’s suicide in jail last year.

The British socialite is accused of “helping Epstein to recruit, groom, and ultimately abuse” girls as young as 14, according to an indictment from the US attorney’s office for the southern district of New York.

The indictment referenced three anonymous underage victims and alleged the abuse took place at several of Epstein’s properties in the US, including his Manhattan apartment, a Palm Beach estate and a ranch in New Mexico, as well as Ms Maxwell’s personal residence in London.

Ms Maxwell was arrested in Bradford, New Hampshire, around 8:30am by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, a spokesperson said. She has long denied any wrongdoing. An attorney for Ms Maxwell declined to comment.

Ms Maxwell — the daughter of Robert Maxwell, the late British newspaper baron — has for years faced allegations that she recruited girls for Epstein. These claims intensified after his arrest on child sex abuse charges almost exactly a year ago and his subsequent suicide while he was awaiting trial in jail.

For much of the past year, Ms Maxwell’s location has been the subject of much speculation. Most recently, it was claimed that she was hiding out in Paris.

In a motion to detain Ms Maxwell, prosecutors appeared to debunk those rumours and said that she had been in New England for much of the past year.

Prosecutors called her a flight risk, citing passports from the US, UK and France, as well as 15 bank accounts she has had over the past four years, with balances as high as $20m.

Ms Maxwell made an initial appearance via teleconference in court in New Hampshire, where a magistrate judge ordered her to be temporarily detained before transfer to the southern district of New York.

Ms Maxwell had been in a relationship with Epstein in the 1990s and had been the financier’s connection to high-profile figures such as Prince Andrew, the British royal.

Prosecutors in New York have sought to interview Prince Andrew and have accused him of being unco-operative, despite his public offer of help. The prince’s legal team has denied the claims.

Audrey Strauss, acting US attorney for the southern district of New York, said at a press conference on Thursday that her office was still keen to speak with Prince Andrew. “Our doors remain open and we would welcome him coming in and giving us an opportunity to hear his statement,” she said.

Virginia Giuffre, an accuser of Epstein, has alleged that Prince Andrew had sex with her when she was 17, a claim he has also strenuously denied.

A source close to Prince Andrew’s legal team said on Thursday: “The Duke’s team remains bewildered given that we have twice communicated with the DOJ in the last month and, to date, we have had no response.”

US officials said on Thursday that they had been keeping tabs on Ms Maxwell as they built their case. “We've been discreetly keeping tabs on Maxwell's whereabouts,” said William Sweeney, assistant director in charge of the FBI's New York field office.

“More recently, we learnt she slithered away to a gorgeous property in New Hampshire, continuing to live a life of privilege while her victims live with the trauma inflicted on them years ago,” he added.

In the detention filing, prosecutors said Ms Maxwell had “made intentional efforts to avoid detection” since Epstein’s arrest last year, including changing location at least twice, changing her phone number — to one registered under the name “G Max” — and email address, and using cash to purchase a 156-acre property in December through an anonymous shell entity.

Lawyer David Boies, who has represented Ms Giuffre in her legal battles with Ms Maxwell and Epstein, said Ms Maxwell’s arrest marked “a great day for justice”.

“Our clients are very pleased, and very grateful, to the prosecutors, that this important step has been taken towards bringing Jeffrey Epstein’s co-conspirators to justice,” he said.

Jennifer Araoz, another Epstein accuser who sued Ms Maxwell last year, said: “Today, my fellow Epstein survivors and I are able to take a breath of relief, as Maxwell’s arrest means some justice for survivors can exist.”

One of the three minors referred to in the indictment was a girl Ms Maxwell allegedly befriended in London between 1994 and 1995 and introduced to Epstein.

The criminal charges against Ms Maxwell include four counts of trafficking relating to the sexual abuse of minors and two counts of perjury, stemming from denials she gave under oath in two depositions in 2016 in a lawsuit brought by Ms Giuffre.

“Maxwell lied because the truth, as alleged, was almost unspeakable,” Ms Strauss said.

The 18-page indictment alleges Ms Maxwell “assisted, facilitated and contributed” to Epstein’s abuse from 1994 to 1997, when she also managed his properties.

Ms Maxwell was accused of grooming underage girls by first befriending them and then trying to “normalise sexual abuse” by discussing sexual topics, undressing in front of them or being present when Epstein abused them.

Prosecutors alleged Ms Maxwell “encouraged minor victims to provide massages to Epstein, including sexualised massages” and facilitated his “sexual preference for underage girls”.

“She pretended to be a woman they could trust, all the while she was setting them up to be sexually abused by Epstein and in some cases by Maxwell herself,” Ms Strauss said.

Additional reporting by Robert Wright in London

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