Saturday May 19, 2007

By David Pilditch and Matt Drake

THE main suspect at the centre of the Madeleine McCann investigation asked a number of people to give him an alibi for the night she was snatched, it emerged yesterday.

And questions were raised after reports that Robert Murat, above, had telephone conversations with Russian Sergey Malinka soon after the child went missing – despite saying they hadn’t spoken for months.

News of 33-year-old Murat’s shocking attempts to cover his tracks led a police source to say yesterday: “This was one more incident which led to suspicions falling on him.”

The new development came as a woman claimed to have seen the four-year-old with a suspicious-looking man in Marrakech six days after her abduction.

She is said to have looked sad and asked the man: “Can I see mummy now?” Portuguese police are now working on the theory that she may have been smuggled to Africa and sold to child traffickers.

When quizzed over the girl’s disappearance, Murat said he was dining with his mother Jenny at their villa at the time.

But yesterday more details emerged of alleged telephone calls between Murat and Malinka, who has also been questioned over the abduction.

It was reported Murat was called by the IT expert 30 minutes after Madeleine was taken from her family’s apartment in Praia da Luz on May 3. It was the first of a series of lengthy chats between the pair over two hours. One call by Murat was said to have been made at 11.40pm.

The conversations were made despite telling police they hardly knew each other and had not spoken for months, it is claimed.

One local newspaper reported yesterday: “Murat made and received calls on his mother’s mobile. Calls were also made from the landline at the Englishman’s house. The Russian couldn’t explain the calls.”

The pair were also said to have been seen on CCTV having animated conversations days after the kidnapping.

Despite police suspicions, Murat’s estranged wife Dawn yesterday said she “sincerely” believes her husband is innocent.

Malinka, 22, could face further questions after it was claimed he may be in Portugal illegally.

The Russian Embassy in Lisbon said it had no record of him registering to live in the country. He has been linked to a firm in nearby Lagos offering boat trips to north Africa.

After Madeleine disappeared a British witness said she saw a couple dragging a young girl with blonde hair towards the marina the morning after Madeleine was taken.

But maritime police were not told of the search until four hours later.

News of the tot’s possible appearance in Morocco came from Norwegian-born Mari Pollard, 45. She said the girl looked sad and confused while near the Ibis Palmeraie Hotel outside Marrakech.

She said the man with her was white, aged 35-40, of average height and had dark brown hair. The child was “a sweet, blonde-haired girl with a very cute face. She was wearing blue pyjamas with a little pink and white pattern on her top”.

Mrs Pollard said it was only when she returned home to southern Spain that she found out a search was on for Madeleine.

She told the Daily Express: “When I saw her picture I knew the girl I had seen was Madeleine. I feel I should have done something. She looked so sad and so alone.”

Mrs Pollard and her British husband Ray, 56, immediately contacted police in Portugal, Spain and Britain. But she said none of the agencies has taken a statement.

Last Tuesday Madeleine’s parents Kate and Gerry insisted they would not leave Portugal until Madeleine had been found.

But now the family has admitted for the first time they fear she is no longer in the country. Appeal posters have been translated into Arabic for use in north Africa.

Meanwhile, Portuguese police say they are clueless as to where Murat disappeared to in a hire car for 38 hours last weekend.

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