Monday May 7, 2007

David Pilditch

A 12-HOUR delay in alerting border police could have allowed kidnapped British three-year-old Madeleine McCann to have been taken out of Portugal.

It took that long for officers to warn police on the frontier with Spain and to issue them a picture of Maddy.

Last night, members of Maddy’s family vented their anger at the slow response in the critical early hours after she vanished.

They claimed it was left up to holidaymakers and hotel staff to carry out the first searches for her.

Police believe Maddy is in the clutches of a paedophile who snatched her from her bed on Thursday night while her parents dined at a restaurant just a few yards away.

They think she is still alive and could even be in a lair no more than three miles from the Ocean Club holiday complex on the Algarve, where the family are staying.

Police have identified a prime suspect and his description has been circulated to local bar and hotel workers. The Daily Express knows full details of the man but has agreed not to publish them at the request of the Portuguese police. They fear the kidnapper may panic and harm Maddy if he believes detectives are closing in.

Maddy’s GP mother Kate broke down yesterday as she spoke for the first time, appealing emotionally for her little girl’s safe return.

Clutching Maddy’s favourite toy, a pink cuddly kitten, Mrs McCann, 38, stood beside husband Gerry after a church service to pray for Maddy, who will be four on Saturday. Her voice choking with anguish, Mrs McCann said: “Gerry and I would just like to express our sincere gratitude and thanks to everybody, particularly the local community here who have offered so much support.

“We could not have asked for more. Thank you. Please continue to pray for Madeleine. She is lovely.” Consultant cardiologist Mr McCann, also 38, added: “From today’s service the things we are going to take are strength, courage and hope. We continue to hope for the best possible outcome from this for us and for Madeleine.”

The family spoke out as one of their friends offered a £100,000 reward for information that could lead to the return of Maddy.

Yesterday the couple released a photo of her taken just days ago during their week-long holiday. It shows the smiling little girl wearing a floppy sun hat and clutching three yellow tennis b*lls.

A witness at the resort saw a man leading a little girl away from the complex by the hand – but he did not see his face.

Yesterday the family, who are devout Catholics, turned to their faith for support to try to help them through their ordeal. They attended the 90-minute service at a 16th century church in the upmarket resort of Praia da Luz.

Agonisingly, yesterday was Dia de Mae in Portugal – Mother’s Day.

Traditionally, children hand their mothers a posy of flowers as a sign of love and to say “thank you”.

A 14-year-old altar girl took Madeleine’s place and walked up the aisle to present tearful Mrs McCann with red and pink roses.

Before the service, Father Jose Pacheco warned Mrs McCann of the tradition where children give their mothers flowers, fearing it may be too heartbreaking for her.

But she insisted that she wanted to be there.

The couple, from Rothley, in Leicestershire, were joined by eight members of their family and friends as they were driven the short distance to the church from their apartment.

Their two-year-old twins, Sean and Amelie, were being looked after by other relatives.

When she arrived at the church Mrs McCann wept as she spent eight minutes kneeling in silent prayer. She repeatedly kissed Maddy’s cuddly toy. Her husband put a comforting arm around her as they sat in the front row. Father Pacheco told the 150-strong congregation : “We were with the family from the moment of the event. You can’t be indifferent. Our heart is full of compassion.”

Emily Seromenho, who has an English mother and a Portuguese father, was chosen to give Mrs McCann her posy of flowers.

Emily said: “It is Mother’s Day in Portugal. It is traditional at Mass that we bring flowers and give them to our mothers and they lay them at the feet of a statue of the Virgin Mary.

“It is a way of saying, ‘Thank you for being my mother’. It is a special day. It is nice – but today it was sad too because of what is happening to Madeleine.”

Last night three family liaison officers from Leicestershire police were helping the couple through their ordeal.

Two specially-trained counsellors have also travelled from Britain to offer them support.

Maddy was snatched while the family were on a holiday organised by upmarket firm Mark Warner.

She was taken as her parents were dining at a tapas restaurant just the other side of the club swimming pool.

Mark Warner offers a crèche and individual babysitters but the McCanns chose not to use either.

Instead the couple were taking turns to check on the children every half-hour.

Yesterday the firm said six British families had asked for their holidays to be switched to another Mark Warner resort in Greece.

Two other families have cancelled their holiday at the Ocean Club and another group have returned home early.

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