DETECTIVES investigating the horrific rape of a woman in a park urgently want to speak to a young man who befriended her shortly before the attack.

Police have stressed the man is not a suspect, but could provide clues to the sex attack in Consett, County Durham, at the weekend.

The 21-year-old victim set off to walk home after leaving the Trades nightclub, in 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 shortcut 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. Seconds after she walked past him, she was thrown face-down on the ground.

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

During the struggle, 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.

Detective Chief Inspector Neil Malkin, who is leading the investigation, said: "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."

An inch-by-inch search of the area was being conducted and house-to-house inquiries were continuing last night.

Specially-trained interviewers were last night talking to the traumatised victim, who required hospital treatment.

Police particularly want to talk to a young man who befriended the woman as she walked from the club.

Det Chief Insp Malkin 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 security cameras in the park, suggest that 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."

Anyone with information is asked to contact 0845 60 60 365 or Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.