New doubt has been cast on the sensational story of Natascha Kampusch, the Austrian teenager held underground for eight years, after a key witness claimed that the kidnapped girl's mother knew the abductor and that she was convinced there was a "connection" between them.
The disclosures, which will be published in Germany's Stern magazine today, were made by Anneliese Glaser, a neighbour of the kidnapped girl and her mother in the days immediately before Natascha disappeared without trace on her way to school in March 1998, aged 10.
Mrs Glaser, who lived in a flat in the same tower block as Natascha, told the magazine that she had worked as a shop assistant in a grocery owned by Brigitta Sirny, the girl's mother, who had separated from her husband at the time of the abduction.
She said that six months before Natascha was kidnapped she had seen the girl's abductor, 44-year-old Wolfgang Priklopil, enter the shop.
"I am sure it was Priklopil," she told Stern, "I am sure that Sirny and Priklopil knew each other and that there was a connection between them." Mrs Glaser insisted that as soon as she saw the police photographs of Priklopil that were broadcast on Austrian television after 18-year-old Natascha's escape from her abductor last month, she recognised him "straight away."
Austrian police, who had heard Mrs Glaser's evidence, refused to comment on her claims but said that they were treating her as an important witness.
Mrs Sirny has previously denied any complicity in her daughter's abduction. Natascha Kampusch and the team of psychiatrists and media advisers surrounding her, made no response to the allegations.
Mrs Glaser's remarks appeared certain to add to the growing confusion and doubt surrounding the circumstances under which Natascha was held captive.
Priklopil committed suicide by throwing himself under a train shortly after she escaped from a converted car inspection pit under the garage of his home in Strasshof, 15 miles from Vienna, last month.
A fortnight ago, Natascha attempted to end media speculation about her ordeal by appearing on television to give a blow-by-blow account of the time she spent as a prisoner in her underground cell.
She said she had constantly wanted to escape and had even dreamt of cutting-off her captor's head with an axe.
However, since then, Natascha has admitted that she went on a skiing excursion with her abductor in the mountains outside Vienna. She previously denied the suggestion.
There have also been several reports from witnesses who claim to have seen her with her abductor in his car, shopping and taking walks. In several cases she is said to have waved and smiled at neighbours.
Natascha is reported to have received about £800,000 in compensation and payments from the media for the rights to her story. Dietmar Ecker, her media adviser, told Stern magazine yesterday that Priklopil had treated Natascha like a "Cinderella". He said: "He would beat her so badly she could hardly walk.
When she was beaten black and blue, he tried to smarten her up. Then he would take his camera and photograph her."
Describing the lengthy interviews that he conducted with Natascha prior to her television appearance, Mr Ecker said: "They were horrific stories, some of which I will take as secrets to my grave. I looked into hell."
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