Saturday May 12, 2007

By David Pilditch in Praia da Luz

TODAY the parents of missing Madeleine McCann should be celebrating her fourth birthday.

Instead, they do not even know if their beloved daughter is dead or alive.

For increasingly gaunt mother Kate, the pain is becoming almost too much to bear and friends fear for her health.

But she and her husband Gerry will have to summon what reserves of inner strength they still possess to endure the cruellest of days as they wait yet again for news of their child who disappeared from a resort in Praia da Luz, Portugal, on May 3.

Instead of celebrations, they have arranged a special vigil at a church close to their Algarve apartment where they will pray for Madeleine’s safe return.

The couple also face the harrowing task of telling their two-year-old twins, Amelie and Sean, why they will be without their sister on her special day.

Yesterday the grim hunt continued as a British couple were questioned by police, and Real Madrid and former England football star David Beckham was the latest celebrity to appeal for a happy ending to the McCanns’ ordeal.

Amid speculation that Madeleine could have been taken over the border into Spain, her parents said they would leave “no stone unturned” to find her.

Thanking wellwishers for the support they have received from around the world, Mr McCann said he and his wife remained “positive and focused”.

He said: “We have been moved by the enormous willingness of people to do all they can to help.”

Mr and Mrs McCann had planned to return to their home in Rothley, Leicestershire, a week ago to celebrate Madeleine’s birthday.

Dozens of relatives and friends had been invited and a close friend had baked a birthday cake with the theme of Doctor Who, her favourite TV programme.

There had even been suggestions that the party might go ahead without Madeleine in recognition of the day’s significance. But relatives last night said it would be put on hold until her safe return.

However, balloons will be released at nearby Queniborough Hall this morning to mark Madeleine’s day.

Wellwishers are also planning to leave birthday cards at Rothley’s war memorial, which has become a focal point for locals to pray for Madeleine’s safe return.

Pub landlady Valerie Armstrong, who organised a vigil at the monument, said: “People in the village would like to mark Madeleine’s birthday but it was felt inappropriate to turn it into a party atmosphere.

“The family felt it would be better to wait for Madeleine to come home and have a party and a cake then.”

Hundreds of yellow ribbons of hope and messages of support and cuddly toys have been attached to railings surrounding the memorial.

Mrs Armstrong said: “The village green here is continuing to be a focal point, not just for those in this village, but all other villages.”

On the Algarve, there was growing concern over how long 38-year-old Mrs McCann could stand the torment. A friend who has flown out to help said: “We are worried about the state of Kate’s health. She has not slept or eaten since the night Madeleine went missing.”

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