Detectives investigating the horrific rape of a woman in a park after a night out want to speak urgently to a young man who befriended shortly before the attack.

Police have stressed the man was not a suspect, but may be able to provide vital clues to the sex attack in Consett, County Durham, at the weekend.

The victim, a 21-year-old local woman, had set off to walk home after leaving the Trades nightclub in the town's John Street, shortly after 2am on Sunday morning.

She walked about 400 yards from the club, before leaving Park Road, near Queen's Gate, to take a short cut home through Blackhill Park.

Shortly after going through the park's new entrance, she was confronted by a man in his 20s wearing dark clothing. He fixed her with an unblinking stare and seconds after she walked past him she was thrown face-down on the ground.

Despite struggling violently and screaming, the victim was overpowered and subjected to a brutal and sustained sex attack in which she was raped.

Police now believe more than a dozen people may have been in the area about the time of the attack.

During her struggles, the victim passed out and may have lain unconscious for more than one-and-a-half hours before recovering and running to a cottage in the park to raise the alarm.

An inch-by-inch search of the area where the attack took place was being conducted by a team of police specialists and house-to-house inquiries in the area were continuing last night.

Specially-trained interviewers were last night talking to the deeply traumatised victim, who required hospital treatment in the wake of her ordeal.

Detective Chief Inspector Neil Malkin, who is leading the investigtion, said he particularly wanted to talk to a young man who befriended the victim as she was walking from the club.

He said: "This man was concerned about the victim's welfare and walked with her as far as the entrance to the park. He is not a suspect and I need to talk to him as a matter of urgency. He may be able to provide more important evidence."

Preliminary investigations, which include a study of footage from CCTV cameras in the park, have suggested up to a dozen people may have been in and around the area shortly before and after the attack.

Det Chief Insp Malkin said: "Despite her screams no one went to the victim's aid. "The man responsible for this attack was in the park before she arrived and we need to speak to anyone who was in that area, including anyone who might have been walking along Park Road."

He added: "The attack is the worst I have had to deal with during my police career and the people of Consett should be reassured that we are doing everything possible to track down the man responsible."

Anyone with information should contact 0845 60 60 365 or Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.