Greece mystery girl: 'Maria' neighbours claim her father came to visit
New video believed to have been made by accused couple shows little girl dancing in backyard
Neighbours of a Roma couple accused of keeping a kidnapped toddler at their encampment in Greece claimed last night that her real father had come to look for her soon after she was taken away by police.
The four-year-old, known only as Maria, is the subject of an international police inquiry after Greek police released her photograph at the weekend, appealing for her parents to come forward.
A Roma couple from the village of Farsala in central Greece are due in court today accused of abducting her from her natural parents, whom police believe are either from northern or eastern Europe – in a case that has invited comparisons with the missing British girl Madeleine McCann.
Last night, though, fellow residents of Farsala's ramshackle gipsy quarter claimed that the couple had a long-standing arrangement with a Bulgarian family to look after the girl, who had lived in Farsala since she was a baby.
Babis Dimitriou, the chairman of the Farsala village Roma association, told The Daily Telegraph: "There was a Bulgarian husband and wife who were working around Greece in temporary jobs, who used to stay here sometimes.
"At one point they left the girl to be raised by the family here in the village.
"The family raised the child as if it was their own, although her father would come back every now and then to see her. The last time he visited was only five days ago, after the arrests had been made.
"All the other Roma here were telling the Bulgarian man to explain to the police that the girl was his, but he has now disappeared." While Mr Dimitriou's account was backed by other residents, Greek police are continuing to investigate the possibility that the blonde, blue-eyed child had been taken without her parents' consent.
Several other theories are emerging as to the origins of the girl.
A couple from Thessaloniki have gone to the police and said that Maria could be their daughter, after their child was reported to have died at birth. The couple claim that they exhumed the coffin and found the body was missing.
"We suspected that our child had fallen victim to traffickers, and was not dead as initially we had been told," the father told Greece's Star newspaper. He had never seen her body, he said.
"And since then we have been looking for our child," he said. Their child was born in 2009 – making her the same age as Maria – and the father, who has near relatives in Scandinavia, said there were many common features and characteristics with his family and Maria. A son, born since they lost their daughter, has the same coloured eyes.
The father said that they were waiting for the results of the DNA tests, and if Maria was their lost child they would take her back. If not, they would carry on their search.
Another theory is that Maria was put up for adoption, but then rejected owing to "problems" with her eyes.
The police have refused to comment on the claims.
The arrested couple allegedly gave police varying accounts as to how she came to be with them, at one point claiming that she had been abandoned outside a supermarket, and at another saying that she been given to them by her Bulgarian mother. Yesterday, a British expert on missing persons inquiries said that the appeal through Interpol had generated a huge response.
Charlie Hedges, the manager for missing and abducted children at the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, part of the newly-formed National Crime Agency, said: "The responses to this particular inquiry have run into the thousands, with quite a few calls from families wondering if this girl may be theirs.
"The challenge in this case is to find out from a four-year-old girl what her original background is, as she may not have that much knowledge of it herself." Yesterday, the family of Ben Needham, a British toddler who disappeared from his grandparents' home on the Greek island of Kos in 1991, said they hoped the case might offer new leads to his disappearance.
Mr Hedges said that while the UK Missing Persons Bureau was checking its databases for children who might be Maria, there was as yet "no specific lead to the UK".
It has been speculated that forensic anthropologists could be used to help identify roughly where the girl came from by studying her facial features, although last night, an expert in the field said that would be difficult.
Prof Sue Black, of the University of Dundee, said: "There is no way in which facial appearance can pin people to a particular part of the world any more because we are so cosmopolitan." Instead, she said that social, linguistic or cultural anthropologists could try to tease out whether the girl knew any words of a particular language.
The encampment where Maria was found is one of three on the outskirts of Farsala, a town of 18,000 people about 200 miles north-west of Athens.
Police carried out a drug raid there on Wednesday, and discovered her living in a single-storey shack on a street where barefoot children play among chickens, cats and dogs.
Yesterday, locals insisted that the girl had been well looked after, with her adoptive mother taking her to a local clinic occasionally for treatment for an eye problem.
"This gypsy mother was the only mother this girl has ever had," said Christos Lioupis, a Greek farmer with many Roma friends locally. "The biological mother was not her real one because she abandoned the girl."
A Greek television station interviewed a man calling himself Kostas, who claimed to be the brother of the arrested man and said the girl was very loved and cared for. "We got this girl in a very nice way," he said. "We raised her. We got her. She was given to us and we raised her."
However, the director of the Greek charity that is now caring for Maria said he suspected that she had been used for begging by her adoptive Roma family.
Costas Giannopoulos, the director of the Child's Smile organisation, told the BBC: "They will use this little girl in the streets to beg because she was blonde and cute."
Authorities alleged that the Roma mother claimed to have given birth to six children in a total of less than 10 months, while 10 of the 14 children that the couple registered as their own are unaccounted for.
Greek television also broadcast a video with no sound, said to have been handed to police by the arrested couple, in which the girl was shown dancing in a backyard.
Her hair appeared to be darker than in the pictures which emerged following her release, suggesting it had possibly been dyed to disguise her.
A spokesman for Kate and Gerry McCann, who have been searching for their daughter since she vanished from their holiday apartment in Portugal in 2007, said the discovery of the girl in Greece gave them renewed hope that they would find Madeleine alive.