Last updated at 08:10 08 January 2008
Doubt was cast on the evidence of several key witnesses in the Madeleine McCann disappearance last night.
Those who said they saw suspect Robert Murat outside the family's holiday apartment on the night she vanished may have named the wrong man, it was revealed.
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Murat mix-up? Witnesses who say they saw suspect Robert Murat (right) outside Madeleine McCann's apartment on the night she vanished may actually have seen David Payne (left) a friend of the McCanns
Read more...Detectives believe the witnesses who said they saw the British expat could have confused him with a friend of Kate and Gerry McCann, David Payne, who was out searching for the missing three-year-old.
If true, the claim could force police into a rethink of their eight-month investigation.
Mr Murat, 34, has insisted he spent the night of May 3 at home in the villa he shares with his mother Jennifer, 72, less than 100 yards from the McCanns' holiday apartment in Praia da Luz, Portugal. His mother said he never left the house.
But a series of witnesses have given statements claiming to have seen him around the Ocean Club apartment complex in the hours after Mrs McCann, 39, raised the alarm.
They include three friends of the McCanns - Russell O'Brien, Fiona Payne and Rachael Oldfield - who later confronted Mr Murat at a police station after he was made a suspect and said he offered to help them search that night.
Mark Warner nanny Charlotte Pennington said she saw him hanging around outside the Ocean Club's reception at about 10pm.
British holidaymaker Jayne Jensen, an unnamed British barrister and two unidentified British tourists all claim to have seen him around the complex that night.
But none of them knew the 34-year-old property consultant before that night.
Police are examining the theory that they could have confused him with Mr Payne.
The medical researcher, who is 41, was searching around the complex that night and - in a street lit by orange streetlights - could easily have been mistaken for Mr Murat.
Mr Murat's lawyer Francisco Pagarete told the Daily Mail: "Robert has always said the witnesses were mistaken. He was not there that night."
A source close to the inquiry said: "The similarity between the two has rendered many witness accounts virtually worthless."
But he added: "What is baffling is that Mr Payne's wife and two of his friends are among those who claim to have seen Mr Murat outside the McCanns' apartment that night. You'd think a wife would recognise her own husband."
The Paynes were unavailable for comment. They are due to be reinterviewed by British police on behalf of their Portuguese counterparts within weeks.
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Madeleine mystery: The case is no closer to being resolved eight months after the four-year-old went missingDetectives want to question all seven of the friends who were on holiday with the McCanns about alleged contradictions in their accounts of the events of May 3.
Mr and Mrs McCann's spokesman Clarence Mitchell said: "We are confident the accounts of witnesses were given in good faith."
Mr Murat's girlfriend Michaela Walczuch was yesterday forced to deny claims she had been named as a police suspect in the case.
The Portuguese newspaper 24 Horas claimed the mother-of-one, 34, had been made an 'arguido', or formal suspect, alongside Mr Murat and the McCanns.
Lawyer Mr Pagarete insisted he had been misquoted by the tabloid when discussing her. Police refused to confirm or deny the report.
A second newspaper, Correio da Manha, claimed tests by the Forensic Science Service in Birmingham had proved DNA found in the McCanns' holiday apartment and hire car was Madeleine's.
Such a finding would support the Portuguese police theory that Madeleine died in an accident in her parents' care and that they faked her abduction. The McCanns deny any involvement in her disappearance.
An FSS spokesman said, however: "Tests are still being carried out. No final report has been submitted to the Portuguese authorities."