Sunday May 13, 2007

By Matt Drake in Praia da Luz and David Pilditch in London

MADELEINE McCANN is believed to be still alive but in the clutches of a British paedophile identified to police by holidaymakers in Portugal.

That is the grim scenario the toddler’s traumatised family are trying to come to terms with as the kidnap hunt enters its 10th day today.

Police are also working on the theory that a gang may have been stalking Madeleine even before her family flew to the Algarve for their sunshine break.

Nine British tourists at the holiday complex where she was taken have been shown photos of child sex offenders known to have been in Portugal in recent months.

Now the search for Madeleine, who should have been celebrating her fourth birthday yesterday, is centred on one paedophile believed to have been picked out by the witnesses from a dossier of more than 100 police photos.

As the reward for Madeleine’s safe return hit £2.5million, her GP mother Kate and heart surgeon father Gerry issued an emotional plea for people to redouble their efforts to find her.

“On Madeleine’s birthday, please keep looking, please keep praying, please help bring Madeleine home,” the couple said in a statement.

“We would like to mark today by asking people to redouble their efforts. We know there is already a huge amount of effort and resources being put into the search for our daughter. We also know that offers of support are made daily. It is this that keeps us strong and gives us hope.”

Tourists at the Mark Warner holiday apartments in Praia da Luz have had their cameras and video recorders taken by detectives in the hope they may have inadvertently caught the kidnapper on film.

We would like to mark today by asking people to redouble their efforts
Kate and Gerry McCann

It emerged yesterday that Madeleine may have been bundled into a white van after being taken as she slept at her family’s ground floor apartment at around 10pm on May 3, while her parents were dining at a tapas restaurant 100 yards away. A police source revealed the small van was spotted several days in a row near the apartment complex. It was not part of the maintenance team and the vehicle has not been seen since the child was taken.

The same source told how detectives are working on a theory that Madeleine was “marked” for abduction before she left Britain.

Mr and Mrs McCann, both 38, of Rothley, Leicestershire, were taken early yesterday from the apartment complex to a villa a few miles down the Algarve coast. Friends of the family are growing increasingly worried for Kate, who has barely eaten or slept since her daughter disappeared. She appeared close to collapse during a church service in Praia da Luz on Friday.

It is believed the couple wanted to spend time alone yesterday with Madeleine’s twin brother and sister, Sean and Amelie, aged 18 months.

More than 100 people have now been shown CCTV footage of three suspects – two men and a blonde woman – seen with a small child at a petrol station near Praia da Luz on the night Madeleine vanished. The trio were driving a car fitted with British number plates and were heading east on the A22 motorway towards the Spanish border.
The number plates turned out to be false. One of the men seen at the filling station resembles a man wanted by Spanish police for the attempted rape of a 10-year-old girl in Gran Canaria last year.

One witness who has seen the CCTV images revealed the blonde woman is aged about 40 and has her hair tied in a ponytail.

One of the men is also 40, with short dark hair. The other man is in his mid-30s. Three days before Madeleine was snatched the same three suspects were spotted on the same beach as the McCann family. They were chased away by another holidaymaker after being caught taking photographs of young children.

One of the most poignant moments yesterday was the release of 40 balloons tied to messages for Madeleine from friends of her parents in the Leicestershire village of Queniborough, where the McCanns lived until moving to nearby Rothley.

One balloon carried a note which read: “Mummy and Daddy, Sean and Amelie – We’ll see you soon” and was signed with two kisses.

Hundreds of Britons living in the Algarve gathered in Praia da Luz yesterday to tie yellow ribbons around the railings of the holiday complex where Madeleine was snatched as a symbol of hope that she will be returned alive.

Businessmen including Virgin tycoon Sir Richard Branson and retail billionaire Sir Philip Green boosted the reward fund yesterday to £2.5million, the biggest in British criminal history. In Liverpool, Madeleine’s grandmother Susan Healy, 61, wept as she said: “We just have to keep on praying.” In Glasgow, Madeleine’s uncle John McCann held an emotional vigil for the youngster, lighting four candles on a cake and singing happy birthday before breaking off to pray for her safe return.

But in a chilling development, a German mother told yesterday how her six-year-old son Rene had been snatched from a beach 20 miles from Praia da Luz 11 years ago and has not been seen since.

In a touching message to the McCann family, Anita B (surnames are not made public in Germany for legal reasons), of Bergheim-Elsdorf, near Cologne, said: “We know what you are going through and how painful it must be.”

Rene disappeared on a beach while walking just 20 yards behind his parents. Each summer they return to the Algarve hoping to find him.

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