DCSIMG

Little girl lost

FOUR-YEAR-OLD Amy Travis is digging a hole in the golden sand just yards from the sea shore. Mum Susan is just a few feet away reading her book and soaking up the sun while husband Kevin kicks a ball with Amy's younger brother Mark.

They could be any family enjoying a holiday on Portugal's sunshine coast and around them other mainly British tourists are taking full advantage of a gloriously warm May day - sunbathing, paddling, building sand castles and exploring rock pools on one of the Algarve's most picturesque beaches. "Please, please put your hat back on," pleads Kevin, worried most of all about sunburn as Mark once again throws it defiantly to the ground in the age-old toddler ritual.

As innocent as the scene was yesterday afternoon, it was noticeable that mothers were clinging just that little bit more tightly to their children as they headed up into the nearby village. Their route took them into the heart of Praia da Luz, the tiny beach resort where 10 days ago three-year-old Madeleine McCann disappeared without trace.

"This is a difficult thing to say when you are a mother yourself and you are wondering how Madeleine's must be feeling, but we can't let it spoil the kids' holiday," said Susan, from Leeds. "We have been here before and we came back because it is such a lovely, friendly and safe place. But at the back of my mind I am conscious about what happened and I am keeping a closer eye on them than normal.

"If you asked me would I have gone off to a restaurant and left my kids alone then obviously I am going to say no, aren't I? I just hope it's a couple who desperately want a child of their own who are behind this. At least they might dote on her and she won't come to any harm."

Up on the promenade, Paul Price, from Preston, and his wife Sarah were sitting in the shade of a palm tree with six-month-old Jamie between them. They flew out to the Algarve two days after Madeleine - who was four yesterday - was abducted from her family's holiday apartment. "We hoped she would have been found before we got here," said Sarah. "Since we arrived we have found it even more difficult to believe it has really happened. This is such a lovely, quiet place. It all seems so ridiculous."

If any proof is required that Madeleine's abduction is a reality then you only have to walk up off the beach promenade, past the 16th-century Catholic church and up into the Ocean Club, an apartment complex run by the up-market British holiday company Mark Warner.

Past the swimming pool, enclosed by walls and fences, is the whitewashed ground floor apartment from where, around 9.45pm on Thursday, May 3, Madeleine was taken while her two-year-old twin brother and sister, Sean and Amelie, slept nearby.

All that lingers of her is images. Glossy posters in shops, banks, bars and restaurants show a cute little girl playing with a handful of tennis balls in a red party dress, big blue eyes staring straight at the camera with the precociousness of a three-year-old for whom life is simply fun.

The road to the rear of the apartment is cordoned off with police incident tape, against which camera crews from news stations around the world have set up their equipment. Behind them in the car parks are the huge satellite trucks that beam their work to a global audience. From just behind the tape, guarded by armed Portuguese policemen, Madeleine's mother Kate and father Gerry, both doctors, who met in Glasgow but live in Leicestershire, have made their increasingly anguished pleas for the safe return of their daughter. It is from here that Kate, holding her vanished daughter's favourite soft toy, a pink cat, has made her way to Luz's seafront church almost daily to pray for Madeleine's return.

The event has split Luz, an overgrown fishing village, an hour's drive west of Faro, the Algarve capital. While the beaches are still crowded with holidaymakers and the fish restaurants still full of diners in the cool of the evening, it has also been the centre of the biggest police search in the Algarve's history. Locals - both Portuguese and British - have been out helping police to comb the nearby beaches, fields, hills and woods for any sign of the missing girl.

Global stars from the world of football - including former England skipper David Beckham, who plays in Spain - have broadcast appeals for information leading to Madeleine's return. British experts schooled in tracking down missing persons have been called in and more than 30,000 members of the public have contacted newspapers, TV stations and websites to offer help or information. One Scottish businessman - Stephen Winyard, who owns the Stobo Castle health spa in the Borders - offered a 1m reward. In Glasgow, 800 people attended a church service organised by Madeleine's uncle, John McCann.

Yet behind all the good will, there is the lingering suspicion that the Portuguese police reacted too slowly to Madeleine's disappearance; that the local police force in a largely rural area took too long to share information with the public and other neighbouring forces that could have led to a greater number of solid leads. There is also a strong feeling among both the Portuguese and the large ex-pat community in Praia da Luz, that the McCanns committed the ultimate parental sin by leaving three young children on their own while going out to dinner, albeit just yards away, with friends.

"I'm sorry, but they should never have left those children on their own," said one British restaurant owner. "It doesn't matter how safe a place appears to be, you are taking a big risk. At three, she could have got up on her own, wandered off to find her mum and dad and fallen in a swimming pool. They had been going back regularly to check, but as doctors they should have known better."

Portuguese parents have also expressed disbelief that such young children were left alone.

Ten days on, the Portuguese police seem no closer to finding Madeleine or whoever took her. There are suspects, particularly two men and a woman seen photographing children on a nearby beach; acting suspiciously while accompanied by a small child at a petrol station near Luz after the abduction; and an unsubstantiated sighting near the Ocean Club. But there have been no arrests. The three main theories, which have hardly changed from day one, are that she was either taken by an international paedophile ring, stolen to order by a kidnap gang on behalf of a wealthy client or abducted by a childless couple.

One thing police seem to be certain of is that Madeleine is no longer in the Luz area. The ground search was called off late on Thursday evening, a week after Madeleine vanished, following one last sniffer-dog search of their former apartment and its grounds. Officers took to the air in microlights on Friday to search the Algarve coast in a gesture seen more as window dressing than a serious part of the so far fruitless investigation.

The general consensus among Luz residents is that Madeleine was taken from the area shortly after the kidnap. Just a short distance outside Luz is the motorway that connects Portugal with Spain, less than two hours away. Beyond the border are the southern Spanish ports that connect with North Africa.

The layout of the Ocean Club is unlike most Mark Warner resorts which are usually self-contained inside easily identifiable perimeters. Instead, it forms part of central Luz itself with unrestricted public access. Just in front of the McCanns' now shuttered apartment - they are staying at the expense of the Portuguese government in a nearby block - is a narrow alley with a wall topped with bushes. From there, it would have been easy to watch Gerry, a heart specialist, and Kate, a GP, make their way to the Ocean Club's restaurants at the far side of the swimming pool. If it was the McCanns' normal pattern to put their children to bed before stepping out in the knowledge that they would be back to check on their sleeping infants every 30 minutes, then that could have been observed over several days by anyone wanting to snatch a child.

Although the apartment faces on to the restaurant, it is separated by the pool, a high wall and hedge. The door is at the rear and opens out onto the public road. Whoever took Madeleine had up to half an hour to break into the apartment and take a sleeping child without much risk of being seen in the darkness. Within minutes, they could have been out of town and on the motorway to Faro. Madeleine's parents would have seen or heard nothing.

There was no sign of a struggle within the apartment, suggesting that Madeleine was either very sleepy or may have known who took her. Vital forensic evidence may have been lost in the frantic search that started moments after the parents discovered she was gone, shortly after 10pm.

The McCanns, on holiday with a group of friends, alerted the holiday company staff who immediately began a search of the town's almost deserted streets. Steve Bradford, the chef at the nearby Eclipse bar, who has lived on the Algarve for nine years and has a young family of his own, said: "I was standing outside the bar and remember it was a very cold and windy night. Hardly anyone was about."

As news spread that the little girl was missing, restaurants and bars emptied and Luz residents joined in the hunt. No trace of Madeleine was found despite extensive ground, air and sea searches of the area. The Portuguese police have had to endure criticism that they were simply not up to the job.

An e-fit of a potential suspect seen by a bar owner acting "suspiciously" was roundly ridiculed as an "egg with hair". One immigration policeman complained that even that had not been circulated to officers manning border crossings to Spain. Road checks have also been less that rigorous according to local expatriates. One woman with a three-year-old blonde daughter, travelling daily between the nearby towns of Port Imao and Lagos, said she had never been stopped. Another motorist said traffic police seemed more concerned about the state of his tyres.

Criticism of this kind has brought a furious response from senior Portuguese policeman who said many officers had given up their free time to join the searches and the country's top detectives had been summoned from Lisbon. Police Union Chief Armando Ferreira said: "We are not responsible for causing this situation. Children disappear in Britain who are never found."

Their case has not been helped by stifling Portuguese secrecy laws, dating back to the 19th century and aimed at preventing lynch mobs pursuing suspects, which stop police chiefs commenting on developments in an ongoing investigation. There have been repeated run-ins with a British media used to a much freer flow of information, particularly in cases of this type when publicity is normally viewed as one of the greatest weapons at the police's disposal.

British police sources say that if the crime had happened here, at this stage a new senior investigating officer would have been appointed to re-examine the case in its entirety.

One experienced former detective said: "This is not in any case a reflection on the initial inquiry or the way it was conducted or handled. It is something which has been used repeatedly over the years in the UK and it has resulted in many a breakthrough.

"All that happens is that the new senior investigating officer goes in and looks at every single aspect of the case. He or she may order people to be re-interviewed or alibis checked out again. It is just a case of a new pair of eyes possibly finding something that has previously been overlooked."

The detective added: "The most crucial time is the first 48 hours but it does seem that period of time was lost and that may prove absolutely crucial in this case."

Given the circumstances, the McCanns are bearing up remarkably well, in public at least. Every morning they have braved the mass ranks of cameras to take Sean and Amelie to the resort crche in the hope that their continued presence in Portugal will keep media pressure on the Portuguese authorities.

Late on Friday night they attended a "vigil of hope" at the seafront church, when around 300 Portuguese families, British ex-pats and tourists gathered to offer prayers for Madeleine's safe return. As she left, Kate McCann, biting back tears, was stopped by two elderly Portuguese ladies who thrust a lit candle into her hands. For more than 90 minutes they had stood outside the church using it to illuminate a picture of the little girl they had come to pray for.

After Friday night's vigil, mothers hurried home with sleeping children over their shoulders and clearly counting their blessings. "Do we believe Madeleine is alive?" the priest asked. "We have to have faith."

 
 
 

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