McCanns despair as picture of girl in Morocco is child of local farmer

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The Independent Online

Another day of renewed hope ended in desolation for Kate and Gerry McCann last night as a girl who was photographed in Morocco, and bore a startling resemblance to their daughter, proved to be a local farmer's child. Though there have been false sightings from Argentina to Guatemala since Madeleine disappeared on 3 May, the image taken through a car windscreen near the village of Zinat by a Spaniard, Clara Torres, had seemed to provide the most striking likeness yet.

But investigations in Morocco revealed the child to be Bushra Binhisa, a farmer's daughter from the Rif mountains in northern Morocco where her family have been resident for generations in a small ethnic population.

Bushra's father Hamid, an olive farmer, said at his smallholding: "Bushra is my little girl. She is not Madeleine. I do feel sorry for her parents, I hope they find Madeleine. But Bushra is definitely my daughter."

The child's mother, Hafida, said she was astonished by the drama created by the photograph, which was taken on 31 August and subjected to scrutiny by Britain's Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOC) yesterday.

The McCanns' hopes of a positive sighting of Madeleine were dashed at about 3pm when their spokesman, Clarence Mitchell, was informed of developments in Morocco and immediately telephoned Gerry McCann.

Accustomed to false alarms, the McCanns had refused to comment on the sighting but Mr Mitchell said the news was "obviously a terrible blow" to them.

A friend of the photographed child's family, Mustafa Hadid, said: "We are all shocked that people could think Bushra was Madeleine. She does have a resemblance but blond and red-haired children are not that rare in this part of Morocco."

The child seems to have been photographed with a group of the local Darijb Tamazigh tribe, in traditional Berber dress and wide-brimmed hats, as they travelled on foot to work.

Even before the developments in Portugal, the image proved a challenging one to work with for forensic scientists from CEOC. The distance of the child from the photographer presented particular difficulties. The group of people in the picture formed only a small part of an image dominated by car windscreen and sky and the child was minuscule, making any attempt to identify Madeleine's distinctive "coloboma" – the dark line running diagonally from the pupil across the iris in her right eye – virtually impossible.

But though the quality of the photograph was too poor to confirm positively whether the girl was Madeleine, some scientists believed the superficial likeness to Madeleine made the sighting worth investigation. "On the basis of what we have seen and the striking similarity which there seems to be, [scientists] might well say yes, it is worth taking further," said David McIntosh, chief executive of Omniperception, a UK biometrics company which works with British police forces.

Mr Mitchell had cautioned the McCanns since Wednesday night against raising their hopes and Dr Rob Jenkins, a psychologist at Glasgow University, said there was likely to be "a good deal of wishful thinking" among people believing the new photograph offered a breakthrough.

Individuals and organisations have given £1,036,104 to Madeleine's Fund, a non-charitable not-for-profit company, of which £300,000 has been spent on the search for theMadeleine, it was revealed last night.

But the difficulty of separating out positive lines of inquiry from reports by well-meaning members of the public, who want to see the child they have heard about, is one of the most challenging tasks police face after making press appeals, according to British officers.

But the photograph did seem the most positive lead since 28 June, when a children's therapist said she had seen a couple behaving suspiciously with a girl who resembled Madeleine on a cafe terrace in Tongeren in Belgium. The sighting was dismissed when DNA on a milkshake bottle the child was seen drinking from was found to be from a male.