A former detective has given credence to the theory Madeleine McCann was snatched “to order” and possibly sold to a wealthy family.
The official probe, which is nearing its tenth year, is currently focused on suspicions that the then-three-year-old was spirited out of Portugal after being deliberately targeted by human traffickers.
There have been several alleged sightings of Madeleine in north Africa, particularly Morocco, which is just a short ferry trip from the Spanish port of Tarifa – not far from the Praia da Luz resort the McCanns were holidaying at.
Ex-Scotland Yard detective Colin Sutton told the Mirror: “If someone wanted to get a three-year-old child into Africa it’s the obvious route. The infrastructure and contacts for people smuggling are clearly there.”
The newspaper points out that the alleged sightings of the missing girl in Morocco were on a key smuggling route not far from the north west African country of Mauritania, where human trafficking gangs are known to operate.
“The Mauritania line is certainly a possibility and needs to be looked at,” confirmed Sutton. It is not known if Scotland Yard is investigating the theory, with the force refusing to give a “running commentary” on the case.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office advises against travel in much of the Mauritania region, warning of a high threat from terrorism, including kidnapping.
Mauritania became the last country in the world to abolish slavery in 1981, although it was only criminalised in 2007. According to the US Department of State, Mauritania is a “source and destination for women, men and children subjected to forced labour and sex trafficking.”
Among the witnesses who claimed to have seen Madeleine in Morocco were Mari Olli and husband Ray Pollard.
Olli told the newspaper she saw a little girl wearing blue pyjamas looking “sad” with a man at a petrol station next to an Ibis hotel in Marrakech. She said the girl repeatedly asked: “Can we see mummy soon?”
Speaking to the Daily Star, she recalled the man she was with was in his 30s and around 5ft 10 and while he wasn’t Moroccan, he didn’t look like the child either. She said: “I think that was what worried me. I was talking to my husband on the way back in the car and saying there was something wrong.”
Olli contacted the authorities in Portugal and the UK and gave a statement to Scotland Yard, but claims that despite promises to call her back, she was not contacted.
Another witness told the newspaper he also saw a girl he suspected was Madeleine on the same day – at the hotel Ibis, next to the petrol station where Olli reported her sighting.
In 2007 in Morocco, photos of a blonde child being carried in a sling by a woman prompted excited speculation Madeleine had been found. It duly emerged the little girl – named Bushra Binhisa – was the daughter of an olive farmer of Berber extraction. In 2013 DNA tests confirmed a girl mistakenly identified in New Zealand as the missing youngster was not her.
That same year a British woman spotted a youngster “bearing a remarkable likeness to Madeleine” at a market in the northern Indian town of Leh. There have also been reported sightings in Portugal, Belgium and France, but none have produced any firm leads.
Madeleine was nearly four when she vanished in 2007 from her family’s holiday apartment in Praia da Luz as her parents dined with friends at a tapas bar nearby. The McCanns have spoken of their bitter regret about leaving her and two-year-old twins Sean and Amelie alone. The missing girl would now be a teenager and the family have never given up the search and remain hopeful she is alive.
A British re-investigation into case was launched in 2011 after the initial one by the Portuguese authorities was deemed insufficient. The Home Office said in June that the investigation had cost £10 million, with a further £2 million budgeted for the year ahead.
Private investigators hired by the McCanns in 2007 reported the presence of men watching children at the beach with binoculars and taking pictures of them. The McCanns believe images of their daughter may have been shared with traffickers who then selected her.