Mothers' Day in Portugal, and a family pleads: Pray for our missing Madeleine

THE parents of a three-year-old British girl abducted from a holiday beach resort in Portugal spoke yesterday of their hope that their missing daughter would be found safe.

Gerry and Kate McCann talked publicly after they attended a Portuguese church, to join prayers being said across the country for the safe return of Madeleine.

The couple took part in a Mothers' Day service in the Praia da Luz holiday resort in the Algarve where their daughter disappeared from their villa apartment on Thursday night.

Mr McCann, 38, said of the Catholic mass: "From today's service, the thing we are going to take from this is strength and courage and hope. We continue to hope for the best possible outcome from this for us and for Madeleine."

A tearful Mrs McCann, 38, clutching Madeleine's favourite pink teddy bear, which she has carried with her since her child's disappearance, said: "Gerry and I would just like to express our sincere gratitude and thanks to everybody, but particularly the local community here, who have offered so much support. We couldn't have asked for more. I just wanted to say thank you. Please continue to pray for Madeleine."

Mr McCann, a cardiologist, originally from Glasgow, and his wife, also a doctor, were dining in a tapas bar 50 yards away with friends, taking turns to check every half hour on Madeleine and her younger brother and sister, twins Sean and Amelia.

Madeleine was taken from the ground-floor apartment at the Mark Warner Ocean Club holiday village between 9:30pm and 10pm. Mrs McCann found that the outside shutter and window to Madeleine's room had been opened and her daughter was missing shortly before 10pm local time.

Detectives searching for Madeleine have said they are convinced the child is still alive, that they know the "prime suspect" and that she is being held close to the resort. Police also said they had an artist's impression of the suspect, which they were not releasing for fear of endangering Madeleine's life.

In the first official briefing on the case on Saturday, Guilhermino Encarnaco, director of the judicial police in the Faro region, said officers were working on the assumption Madeleine was being held between two to three miles from the resort. He said police had taken about 30 calls from potential witnesses and had created an artist's impression of a suspect. Some witnesses reported a black saloon car spotted at a supermarket 50 yards from the holiday village.

However, police sniffer dogs lost Madeleine's scent at the supermarket and CCTV cameras did not pick up images of her or her abductor.

There are fears that Madeleine may have been targeted by a paedophile. Police say the artist's impression has not been released in case the man panics and endangers the child.

Paul Luckman, owner and publisher of the Portugal News, aimed at English-speaking expats and holidaymakers, said of the detectives leading the hunt: "They have a level of local information you would probably describe as extraordinary. So when they say this, I think it is highly likely they have very, very firm information. They don't want to get it wrong in front of the world's press."

Yesterday, an intensive search was under way, involving hundreds of police officers and volunteers searching the holiday village and surrounding countryside. Officers on horseback were sent to search vast areas of shrubland surrounding the estate.

On Thursday night, the McCanns, from Rothley, Leicestershire, had immediately insisted their daughter had been abducted because there was evidence of a forced entry into the bedroom where she had been sleeping. The couple had told relatives they feared they were being watched in the hours leading up to the kidnapping.

Portuguese police initially treated her disappearance as a missing- person case, but on Saturday they confirmed they believed Madeleine had been kidnapped.

Last night, the founder of the Switzerland-based group Innocence in Danger - launched in 1999 by UNESCO to counter child abuse and trafficking - criticised Portugal's record on bringing child abusers to justice. Homayra Sellier said: "The fact that the girl was kidnapped from her bed shows how bad things are."

Portuguese newspapers reported yesterday that there had been poor co-ordination between police forces and the Foreigners and Frontiers Service, which is charged with controlling the country's borders.

However, police said on Saturday they believed Madeleine was still in Portugal. All airports, in Portugal and Spain, had been alerted and borders were under surveillance, they said. British police officers have also travelled to the Algarve to help.

Mr McCann's sister Philomena criticised the Portuguese police for initially "playing down" their response to the disappearance.

Speaking from her home in Glasgow, she said: "He [Mr McCann] thinks it's just too little, too late.

"It was hours before the local police turned up and we're talking two bobbies who totally downplayed the incident, and said Maddie had maybe just wandered off."

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