The mystery over a young blond girl known only as Maria appeared to have been resolved last night after an impoverished Bulgarian woman admitted that the child (pictured) could be her daughter.
Sasha Ruseva (35) said she had given birth to a girl in Greece "several years ago" but had been forced to leave her baby behind because she could not afford to take her home.
Maria, who is aged between four and six, was discovered living in a Roma settlement near the Greek town of Farsala last week, with a couple whose DNA tests proved they were not her biological relatives.
Authorities launched an international hunt to find her family, receiving more than 8,000 calls from as far afield as Japan, Canada and Sweden.
But yesterday the focus turned to the small Bulgarian town of Nikolaevo after reports emerged suggesting that Mrs Ruseva and her husband, Atanas (37), might be Maria's real parents.
The couple were detained by police and taken to the town of Gurkovo for questioning.
Pictures quickly emerged of their other children, showing that several bore a strong resemblance to Maria, with white-blonde hair, pale skin and clear eyes.
One of them, 15-year-old Isa Rusev, admitted that his mother had cried: "That's my daughter!" and burst into tears after seeing
photographs of Maria on the television.
"I cannot say if she is my sister," said Isa. "I don't know how many sisters I have. But my mother cried when she saw the picture."
Mrs Ruseva emerged from questioning last night and confirmed that she could be Maria's mother.
She said she had given birth to a girl in Greece several years ago, but had been forced to return to the family home in Bulgaria. She left the child behind as she had no money to look after her.
"I do not know whether she is mine or not," said Mrs Ruseva of Maria. "We had a child. We left it in Greece as I had nothing to feed her. I did not take any money."
She said she would take the child back if DNA tests proved she was the mother.
According to the Bulgarian interior ministry, Mrs Ruseva told police she had left the baby girl in Greece when she was about seven months old. She also claimed to have recognised the Greek Roma couple involved in the case as the people with whom she had left her child.
Prosecutors, meanwhile, announced they had pressed preliminary charges against Mrs Ruseva for "deliberately selling a child while residing out of the country".
"A DNA test has been taken from Ruseva, and information has been collected about her trips to Greece in the last years," a statement said.
Maria was discovered last week when police searched a Roma camp in Farsala for drugs and weapons and noticed she looked so unlike the couple – Christos Salis (39) and Eleftheria Dimopoulou (40) – who were looking after her.
The couple were arrested, but insisted that they were acting "out of charity" and that Maria's mother gave her up voluntarily.
Despite their plea, they were charged with child abduction, while Maria was placed in the care of a charity.
Yesterday, Greek hospital birth records emerged showing that a girl had been born to Mrs Ruseva on January 31, 2009 – the same date given as the birthday by the Greek Roma couple who claimed the girl as their own.
The records showed that Mrs Ruseva had attempted to register the infant girl with authorities 10 days after she gave birth in a public hospital, claiming that she was unmarried and could not name the father. However, authorities became suspicious because she presented identity documents that showed she was married and had two previous children with her husband.
Mrs Ruseva said she left her seven-month-old baby to a woman in Greece when she and her husband worked in Larissa but needed to go back to Bulgaria. Whether she was sold or simply given away is unclear. One neighbour told local journalists that Mrs Ruseva said she had sold the child for 500 leva (€250).
Meanwhile, Maria remains in the care of the charity Smile of the Child. "She is much better," said Costas Giannopoulos, head of the charity. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
By Harriet Alexander and Fiona Govan