Madeleine McCann investigation: Police looking at further cases of sexual assault on British girls

Incidents occurred during home break-ins by a lone intruder in the Algarve

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The Independent Online

A ten-year-old girl was sexually assaulted in the holiday resort where Madeleine McCann disappeared in 2007 in the latest attack to emerge by a suspected serial child abuser targeting young Britons on holiday in the Algarve, the Metropolitan Police revealed on Wednesday.

The attack – two years before Madaleine went missing – is one of 18 linked incidents over six years across the region but the first attack identified in the tiny Praia da Luz fishing village where the three-year-old disappeared while sleeping in a villa on holiday with her parents seven years ago.

Scotland Yard detectives said that a fresh round of appeals last month led to information about five attacks and one “near miss” that they did not previously know about. All of them – bar the attack on the ten-year-old – had been reported previously to the Portuguese police, but not passed to the Scotland Yard team investigating the case.

The cases have been linked as the attacker usually walks into the home, sit on the child’s bed or tries to get under the sheets before escaping. In a number of cases, the attacker has been disturbed by the child’s parents.

The serial abuser – described as having a deep-tan with a “stale” smell – has emerged as a key suspect for the abduction and possible murder of Madeleine McCann. Detectives are investigating the possibility that he was a dustman after some of the nine sexual assaults on children aged six to 12 took place early in the morning at the time of refuse rounds.

The new cases highlighted failures by Portuguese police to pass on all the relevant information. Detective Chief Inspector Andy Redwood said his major concern was a breakdown in communication between local police and senior colleagues in Portugal which meant that “sitting in police exhibit stores somewhere in the Algarve could be forensic material that we and the Policia Judiciaria are not aware of”.

Officers are believed to have forensic material – thought to be DNA – retrieved from one of the other attacks but have no match on the rudimentary Portuguese database, or in Britain.

“We have a range of theories as to who may be responsible,” said DCI Redwood. “Our sense is … we’re looking at one offender but that does not preclude the fact there may be others involved. Our minds are completely open.”

The reported 2005 attack on the 10-year-old girl was in the “heart” of Praia da Luz – a former fishing village turned holiday destination with a population of 3,000 – but detectives declined to comment further on the incident. Officers said that in some cases, the parents may not have been aware of the attack at the time.

Police have now been told of three incidents in Praia da Luz before and after Madeleine’s disappearance indicating that her abductor could have been active in the area both before and after the disappearance.

British detectives launched a fresh investigation into the youngster's disappearance in July last year - two years into a review of the case - and made renewed appeals on television in the UK, Ireland Netherlands and Germany.

After shelving their inquiry into Madeleine's disappearance in 2008, Portuguese authorities said last October that a review had uncovered enough new information to justify reopening it. The Portuguese police has declined to open a joint inquiry with Scotland Yard or to deal with some of their requests for help.

But senior officers said that they were “cautiously optimistic” that officers in Portugal would start taking action soon on following up leads passed to them by Scotland Yard. Officers have so far not taken up the offer of David Cameron – who has taken a close personal interest in the case – to intervene with his Portuguese counterpart.

Clarence Mitchell, the spokesman for Kate and Gerry McCann, said “They remain extremely grateful to the British police for what they are doing. It’s in everybody’s interests that the work in Portugal is done as soon as possible.”