Saturday May 5, 2007

Mark Reynolds

THE three-year-old daughter of two doctors is feared kidnapped today after disappearing during a family holiday in Portugal.

Police are investigating whether little Madeleine McCann was snatched from their ground-floor holiday apartment while they dined out.

Kate McCann, a GP, and her husband, Gerry, a heart specialist, had left the toddler – dressed only in white pyjamas – sleeping with her two-year-old twin brother and sister.

As the parents ate in a tapas restaurant just yards away in Praia da Luz, western Algarve, on Thursday night, intruders are feared to have broken through shutters into the bedroom and abducted Maddy as she slept. The twins, Amelie and Sean, were not disturbed.

Specialist anti-kidnap officers from Britain’s Serious Organised Crime Agency were heading to the resort last night to help the Portuguese police.

Sniffer dogs scoured the area for any signs of the missing youngster. One dog, after smelling a piece of the child’s clothes, appeared to pick up the scent before it disappeared some 50 yards away outside a local supermarket.

The store’s CCTV was checked – but it had not been working.

The McCanns, both 38, from Rothley village, near Leicester, were due to celebrate Maddy’s fourth birthday next week.

They issued an emotional statement, saying: “We have received lots of support from friends, family and the public and the family are very grateful for that support.

“At this time, all the family’s focus is in assisting the UK, and in particular the Portuguese, authorities in securing Madeleine’s safe return.”

The youngster’s aunt, Trish Cameron, of Dumbarton, near Glasgow, said: “The phone went last night and it was my brother Gerry, distraught on the phone, breaking his heart.

“He said, ‘Madeleine’s been abducted, she’s been abducted’. They kept going back to check the kids every half-hour.”

On the last visit, at 10 pm, Mrs McCann went into the apartment, then ran out, screaming.

Mrs Cameron said: “The door was lying open, the window in the bedroom and the shutters had been jemmied open. Nothing had been touched in the apartment, no valuables taken, no passports. They think someone must have come in the window and gone out the door with her. It looks as if somebody has either been watching, or they’ve targeted her.”

Police were keeping an open mind about what happened. They were also investigating whether Maddy could simply have wandered off.

The apartment block in the Mark Warner complex is just 200 yards from the sea, and it was dark by the time the alarm was raised. But kidnapping remained the most likely explanation for the disappearance.

The McCanns had not employed a baby-minder, although the holiday company offers a free drop-in creche service or a paid-for private babysitter.

Dr McCann is a cardiologist at Leicester’s Glenfield Hospital. His wife is a popular family doctor in Melton Mowbray. A Portuguese police spokesman said: “They immediately raised the alarm and a search was begun, but so far there has been absolutely no sign of the girl. The fear is she has been abducted.”

Police sealed off the five-storey block and began taking fingerprints. Three police vans and three police cars were at the scene as four uniformed officers searched the family apartment. Forensic specialists fingerprinted the window sill of the McCanns’ ground-floor apartment.

A patio at the back of the block, believed to be attached to the family’s room, was sealed off with tape.

As soon as the disappearance was discovered, hotel guests joined a frantic search of the grounds until 4.30am.

Resort hotel manager John Hill said: “It was a very emotional and very frantic night and everyone did a fantastic job of getting involved and trying to search the area. As you can imagine, Madeleine’s parents are distraught and not doing very well at all.”

A Mark Warner spokesman stressed that the resort offered a “dining out service” providing creche facilities for children aged four months to nine years.

“We are all hoping that the child is asleep under a bush somewhere, and that we will find her soon,” he said.

He added that there was no physical evidence that the girl had been abducted. And he said Mark Warner had never had a child missing or abducted before.

Yesterday, Maddy’s grandparents, Brian and Susan Healy, from Mossley Hill, Liverpool, flew to join their daughter Kate. They said she felt the Portuguese authorities were not doing enough to find Maddy.

But Portuguese police said every possible theory was being investigated.

A close friend of the McCanns, Jill Renwick, said the parents were adamant their daughter had been abducted.

“They were just watching the hotel room and going back every half-hour,” she said.

“They went out about eight, went back in at nine, they were fine, went back in at 10 – and she was gone. They are very, very anxious parents and very careful and they chose Mark Warner because it is a family-friendly resort.”

Another friend, Pat Perkins, 61, said: “Gerry and Kate are fantastic parents and could see the bedroom from the hotel restaurant.

“Madeleine’s a beautiful little girl. It’s her fourth birthday soon. They were supposed to be flying home tomorrow to celebrate. We can’t believe what’s happening. We’re sat by the phone waiting to hear news. We’re all going through hell.”

Praia da Luz resident Mark McCarrick said the girl might have simply walked out of her room.

“The parents left the door ajar so they could keep going over and looking at her,” he said. “We are hoping that because the door was open, she just walked out.”

The resort, set in sub-tropical gardens, is made up of self-catering cottages and low-rise apartment blocks. Though a popular, quiet holiday haven for Britons, it has also attracted “unsavoury types”, mainly burglars, who target holidaymakers.

Last night, the Foreign Office confirmed that the British anti-kidnap unit was in contact with the McCanns’ local police force and a liaison officer based in Lisbon was in contact with Portugal’s police chief.

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