Thursday, May 10, 2007

Police chase new leads as resort search for girl ended

Police chase new leads as resort search for girl ended

· Three suspects sought in British-registered vehicle
· Parents consider whether to accept £1m reward offer

Esther Addley in Praia da Luz
Friday May 11, 2007
The Guardian

Portuguese police investigating the disappearance of three-year-old Madeleine McCann are ready to call off their search around Praia da Luz, the Algarve resort where she vanished.

Eight days after she was apparently kidnapped from the bedroom of her parents' holiday apartment, investigators said last night the trail had gone cold in the town and surrounding area.

"All the places have been checked. The results are zero," said Chief Inspector Olegario Sousa, who is leading the investigation. The search of the town and more than 200 square kilometres of surrounding countryside would therefore be ended, he said at a press conference last night.

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The search would now focus on three connected lines of investigation, he said, but refused to give further details. "We are looking at several clues, not just one."

Local newspapers have said police inquiries are increasingly centring on three suspects seen driving a car with British number plates.

Police are understood to have been given CCTV footage of two men and a woman at a petrol station near Praia da Luz taken on the night Madeleine was abducted.

According to local newspaper reports, one of the men and the woman, who was described as blonde and in her 40s, were photographing young children in a nearby town days before Madeleine's disappearance. When challenged by the father of one of the children, the Correio de Manha said, they fled. The man is reported to have been shown the CCTV images and confirmed that it was the same couple. The number plate had been passed to European police, the newspaper said.

Another newspaper, 24 Horas, quoted a local businesswoman as saying she saw a woman matching the blonde's description outside the girl's bedroom window on the night she disappeared.

Asked about the reports, Mr Sousa confirmed that CCTV footage had been taken from several locations but would not elaborate. "The notice that appears in the newspaper is their responsibility," he said, adding that "countless hypotheses" were being investigated.

Police yesterday also issued a photograph of the pyjamas Madeleine was wearing when she disappeared, three days after her parents did so on their own initiative.

It was another blow for Kate and Gerry McCann, who spent most of yesterday afternoon at a police station being reinterviewed; police have stressed that they are not under suspicion .

The McCann family are also considering whether they can accept the offer of a £1m reward to anyone who can provide information that leads to the girl's return made by a businessman this week. Stephen Winyard, owner of a Scottish health spa called Stobo Castle, made the offer. It is unclear whether Portugese law allows the offer to be formally put to the public. On Saturday a colleague of Mrs McCann offered a £100,000 reward for help in finding her daughter.

Earlier in the day, Mrs McCann attended an ecumenical communion service in the town's chapel, accompanied by a female friend. More than 150 local people, expatriates and holidaymakers crammed into the small church for a service which the Anglican priest, Haynes Hubbard, described as unprecedented.

"We are simply going to ask God's power and protection on Madeleine and her parents and her siblings, and on everyone who has been shocked and saddened and utterly desolate at what has happened," he said.

At one point during the highly emotional service, Mrs McCann stood and touched a large candle burning at the front of the church while she prayed silently. Several holiday reps from Mark Warner, the firm which operates the holiday resort where the couple are staying, were in the congregation, some of them in tears.

Mr and Mrs McCann are devout Catholics and have attended a number of services at the chapel since Madeleine disappeared last Thursday evening from their apartment while they ate in a tapas restaurant 100 metres away.

One expatriate woman, who gave her name only as Alison, had come with her nine-year-old daughter, Ashley. "As a mum I wanted to do something," she said. "I don't know how on earth we can offer any comfort but I wanted to make sure there were as many people here as possible to show our support."

Crimestoppers has set up a special number for information from holidaymakers in the Algarve. A spokeswoman said a number of calls had been passed to the police, four of them containing information that was potentially "very useful".

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