Suspect’s home scoured in search for British tot

Philomena McCann aunt of missing British girl Madeleine McCann speaks to the media outside the Houses of Parliament
Madeleine McCann's aunt Philomena McCann stands by a poster of the missing girl in London. Madeleine was abducted from a Portuguese resort during a family vacation.Stephen Hird / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

Forensics experts on Wednesday searched the home of a suspect in the disappearance of 4-year-old Madeleine McCann while the missing British girl’s family said it had been lifted by a “tidal wave of hope” after receiving pledges of support from around the world.

In Praia da Luz, British tourists — some toting young children — continued to stroll down the narrow, seaside streets, and sunbathers filled the golden beaches on Wednesday. But life in this idyllic holiday resort was far from normal two weeks after Madeleine disappeared from her hotel room while her parents ate dinner at a nearby restaurant.

Posters of the doe-eyed young girl are plastered everywhere, offering a multimillion-dollar reward, and locals and beachgoers alike talked of little else.

“Not knowing is the worst. We’d all like to help, but what can we do?” said Filomena Marcos, a Portuguese hotel worker.

The suspect, 33-year-old Briton Robert Murat, was questioned Monday after British journalists reported him to police, saying he was poking around the crime scene and implying he was part of the investigation.

Police released him Tuesday for lack of evidence but said he continues to be a suspect.

Murat went public with his defense late Tuesday, saying he was at home with his mother when the girl disappeared and had nothing to do with the abduction. He told Sky News he was being set up as a “scapegoat” and the suspicion surrounding him was ruining his life.

Two other people, identified by British media as Murat’s girlfriend and her estranged husband, have also been questioned, although they are not currently considered suspects. Police also questioned a computer expert believed to have helped the suspect set up a Web site.

According to Portuguese and British media reports, closed-circuit TV at a gas station on a nearby highway captured pictures of two men, a woman and a little girl in the days following Madeleine’s disappearance, but police have refused to say whether they have identified anyone in the video.

Suspect's home near girl’s hotel
Police spent Wednesday — their third day — at Murat’s home, a villa hidden by high walls and tall trees which is just down the street from the hotel where Madeleine was apparently abducted May 3. They were also examining computers and cell phones taken from the villa, officials said.

Four other homes in the area have also been searched, police said.

In Britain, Murat’s estranged wife, Dawn Murat, said she had been questioned by police. She refused to discuss the investigation or her relationship with Robert Murat.

“This is a very difficult time for my family,” she said in a statement issued through Norfolk Police. “I am assisting the police in any way I can.”

Madeleine vanished after her parents left her, and her brother and sister, both aged 2, alone in their room while they went to a tapas bar inside their hotel complex in Portugal’s southern Algarve region, a popular European tourist destination.

Madeleine’s parents, both doctors from central England, have kept up a constant vigil in Praia da Luz, speaking occasionally to the media, attending services at a beachside church and dropping their other children off at a local kindergarten to free themselves to concentrate on the hunt for their daughter. They have appeared composed but clearly devastated by their ordeal.

In England, Philomena McCann, the girl’s aunt, made a plea for her return Wednesday.

“Madeleine is a beautiful, caring little girl. I can totally understand why someone might take her — but give her back, she is not yours,” she said.

Support pours in globally
McCann said her brother, the child’s father, was “floored” by Madeleine’s disappearance, but had been heartened by the incredible outpouring of sympathy and support from around the world.

“Instead of a tidal wave of despair, he is facing a tidal wave of hope,” she said.

In the British House of Commons on Wednesday, many lawmakers wore yellow ribbons, which have become a symbol of hope for Madeleine’s safe return. Chancellor Gordon Brown — who will likely take over as prime minister when Tony Blair steps down at the end of June — met members of Madeleine’s family and said he would help “in any way he can,” a spokesman said.

A Scottish businessman has offered a $2 million reward for information leading to Madeleine’s return, and other celebrities such as children’s author J.K. Rowling and entrepreneur Richard Branson have also pledged money.

The girl’s family also has set up a fund for contributions to find her, saying any extra money would be used to help find other missing children in Britain and Portugal.