Madeleine McCann's disappearance is 'linked to a string of child abductions'By VANESSA ALLEN and LUCY BALLINGER
Last updated at 00:34 18 February 2008
Police investigating Madeleine McCann's disappearance have been alerted over a spate of attempted child abductions in northern Portugal, it has been revealed.
At least four children have been targeted in the last month in the region of Coimbra, where a nine-year-old girl escaped from an abductor in December.
Police are investigating if the cases are connected, and if they could be related to Madeleine's disappearance from Praia da Luz, some 300 miles away in the Algarve, last May.
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Help: Kate McCann, with husband Gerry, says she has a lot to offer children's charities
Mrs McCann has not returned to work since Madeleine's disappearance in May and has reportedly told friends she feels she has a lot to offer charity organisations.
Private detectives searching for four-year-old Madeleine believe she was targeted by a paedophile network and smuggled out of Portugal, and that other children could also have been taken.
In the first reported attempted abduction, in December last year, a man bundled a nine-year-old girl into his car as she walked home from her school bus stop in the village of Charneca, near Coimbra.
The terrified girl told police he held on to her and drove her about a mile away, but she managed to escape when he was forced to brake to let another car pass on the remote, narrow road.
She ran crying back to the village and told police her abductor spoke Portuguese with a Brazilian accent, wore an earring and drove a grey car.
Since then there have been two more attempted abductions in nearby villages, including an attack three weeks ago when two men in a car tried to grab a 13-year-old girl after she also got off her school bus to go home.
Her mother, who was waiting for the girl, saw the men and screamed, and they released the teenager and fled.
Then on Thursday nine-year-old Clarisse Neto was targeted as she walked to a music class at her school in Vila Nova de Poiares, about five miles from Coimbra.
Two men in a light-coloured car approached her and signalled for her to get into the car, shouting: "Come here, come here."
Clarisse screamed and ran to a nearby health centre, where workers called the police.
Police said the girl was "traumatised, very panicked and very confused" by her ordeal, and could only describe the two men as both wearing woollen hats.
Her father Augusto Neto told the Portuguese newspaper Correio da Manha: "If they took my daughter I would never see her again. The country is small, the borders are very close.
"She will not be going to school alone any more. I will not let anyone else try to steal my daughter. I love my family and I will not let anyone harm them."
A police source said there had been several reports of attempted abductions in that area, including another attempt on Saturday, in the village of Vale do Tronco, but refused to reveal details of the latest attack.
He said: "For now it is not possible to state whether there is a connection between the cases."
Police working on the nine-month Madeleine investigation are not involved in the Coimbra cases, but have been kept informed.
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Madeleine's disappearance 9 months ago could be part of a bigger abduction operationMcCann spokesman Clarence Mitchell said: "There is no suggestion of a direct connection but it shows that this sort of thing can occur in Portugal.
"We would hope the Portuguese police are investigating this as thoroughly as we hope they still are in the search for Madeleine."
But he refused to comment about claims that Kate McCann had decided to quit her work as a locum GP permanently, in order to work for children's charities.
He said: "Kate and Gerry are talking to non-government organisations and child welfare groups, but her priority is the search for Madeleine and looking after the twins."
The couple want to campaign for a Europe-wide alert system for missing children, like the amber alert system in place in the U.S.
Mrs McCann, 39, has not returned to work since Madeleine's disappearance in May and has told friends she would like to work for children's charities.
Her cardiology consultant husband Gerry, also 39, has already returned to his £75,000-a-year post at Leicester's Glenfields Hospital.
A source close to the couple told the People newspaper: "Kate feels after all she's been through she has lots to offer child organisations.
"She wants to help others who are going through what she has been through. Many people have come forward in support of her and Gerry and she will never forget that."
The McCanns attended a lunch for Missing Children Europe last week and they have both met with officials from the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children and the Centre for Child Exploitation and Online Protection.
Mrs McCann's mother Susan Healy, 61, told the People: "It is definite now. One of her main goals in life is to work with children and assist with child safety."
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