After being questioned for hours by police, Jeff and Jenny Bramley issued a statement, claiming they had been forced to run away with half-sisters Jade and Hannah Bennett, aged five and three respectively, to escape the control of social services.
"The only thing we thought we could do was leave with the children. But as soon as we heard the social services would allow the court to take an independent look ... we arranged ... to return," they said.
The legal battle for custody of the two children was due to begin today in the High Court in London. Cambridgeshire social services said it was happy to allow the couple to care for the children until the courts decided their fate. The council insisted, however, that it would still object to the couple's application for adoption. "Our position has not changed," said a spokesman.
It was revealed last night that despite a number of reported sightings around Britain, the family had spent most, if not all, of the past four months in the Irish Republic.
Having driven from their Cambridgeshire home to York - where they dumped their car to leave a false trail - the couple travelled to a small seaside community on the south-east Atlantic coast. For part of the time, at least, they stayed at a caravan in Fenit, near Tralee, Co Kerry.
By leaving the country before they were reported missing by social services on 14 September, when they failed to return the two girls, the couple did not arouse suspicion at the Holyhead ferry terminal in North Wales.
Yesterday detectives from Cambridgeshire police spent several hours interviewing Mr and Mrs Bramley, under caution, at a police station outside the county. In a statement Detective Superintendent John Cummins said the pair had co-operated fully and had explained their "reasons for leaving ... their whereabouts and experiences during the 17 weeks they were away from home." He added that a file would be passed to the Crown Prosecution Service, which would decide whether the couple should face any charges. A decision is expected in days.
Social services were keen to stress that both girls had been examined by a doctor and were fit and well. While their foster parents were questioned, the girls played at a secret address.
The Bramleys flew back to Britain on Saturday night, arriving at Stansted airport, Essex, from Kerry.
Search team, page 2; Given the runaround, page 3.
In the Review section:
Letters, page 2; Leading article, page 3