Police were yesterday scouring Europe for a German couple who abandoned three small children in a pizzeria in the north-west Italian town of Aosta on Sunday evening and have not been seen since.
The couple, Ina Caterina Remhof, 26, the mother of the children, and her partner, Sascha Schmidt, 24, brought the children, aged six, four and eight months, into the Il Capanno pizzeria.
They took a table together and placed their orders like any other family of tourists, according to the restaurant's manager, Carmello Casella.
But about 45 minutes later, while the children were still eating, the couple stood up and told Mr Casella that they were going outside for a smoke. When they failed to return the restaurant staff became worried and called the police.
The children gave no indication of distress when police questioned them. The six-year-old boy told a German-speaking policewoman that the family had come to Aosta by car but had run out of petrol and had left it by the side of the road.
He took police to the car, parked near the pizzeria, then to a nearby hotel where the family had booked two rooms, using a credit card which turned out to be invalid.
Ezio Gevroz, the manager of the hotel, told La Stampa: "On Sunday the woman seemed very agitated, almost scared, in a panic. They had arrived on Saturday, the little ones were very under-dressed and were cold. They took two rooms."
Police found the passports of the missing couple in the car and began to piece the family's story together. They said Ms Remhof had a history of drug problems and had been with Mr Schmidt, who was not the children's father, for some time. They had arrived in Aosta through the Mont Blanc tunnel and had checked into the hotel with no luggage.
Aosta police said: "Documents found in the car lead us to believe that the couple were in an evident state of difficulty," though they denied reports that a diary with entries suggesting thoughts of suicide had been found.
Police have made checks at railway stations, airports and border crossings since the couple disappeared but have not found any clues to their whereabouts. Ms Remhof's mother in Germany has been kept informed of the mystery, and is said to be prepared to accept the children on their return from Italy. In the meantime they are being cared for by Aosta social services.