Portuguese police aided by German and British colleagues on Tuesday resumed their search for Madeleine McCann, the British child who disappeared in the country’s southern Algarve region 16 years ago.
Between 20 and 30 officers, some in uniform, could be seen in the area by the Arade dam, about 50km from Praia da Luz, where the 3-year-old was last seen alive in 2007.
Portuguese police had set up a blue base tent and cordoned off the area to the media and public. Eyewitnesses said police began searching shortly before 8 am Tuesday in an area some kilometers away from the tent. More than a dozen cars and police vans could be seen arriving in the area.
Portuguese media say this is the fourth search for McCann, following the initial one in 2007 in the Algarve area and then in 2013 and 2014. Another search was held in Germany in 2020.
The case stirred worldwide interest for several years, with reports of sightings of her stretching as far away as Australia, along with a slew of books and television documentaries about the case.
Rewards for finding Madeleine, who would now be 20, reached several million dollars.
What happened to Madeleine McCann?
On May 3, 2007 Madeleine McCann, 3, vanished from her bedroom in the apartment her family were staying in at the Praia da Luz resort in Portugal while her parents, Kate and Gerry, ate with friends - who became known as the “Tapas 7” - at a nearby restaurant.
She was in the same room as her twin brother and sister, who were 2 at the time.
The group of adults had devised a rota system to check on all of the group’s children during the evening.
But when it was Kate’s turn, she discovered Madeleine had gone.
Police were called and staff and guests at the complex searched for her until daybreak.
Border police and airport staff were put on alert and hundreds of volunteers joined efforts to find Madeleine in the following days.
Local police concluded it was a kidnapping.
The family voiced concern at what they called a slow initial police response and failure to secure the crime scene.
The McCanns turned to the media to help find their daughter, and the case drew global attention with soccer stars David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo among those joining appeals for information, while they also met the Pope.
Her disappearance sparked a long-running missing person case spanning over 16 years. Madeleine’s whereabouts remain unknown.
What did the probe find?
The media focus led to reported sightings of Madeleine across the globe. However, the early investigation by Portuguese police produced no major leads and detectives began to focus attention on the parents themselves.
In September 2007, Gerry and Kate McCann were questioned by police as formal suspects. The following July, Portuguese police dropped their investigation because of a lack of evidence and cleared the McCann of any involvement.
The couple and the friends with them on the night Madeleine went missing successfully sued a number of British tabloids for libel for suggesting they were involved in their daughter’s disappearance.
In 2015, a Portuguese court ordered a former Portuguese investigator involved in the initial inquiry to pay the McCann damages for alleging in a book that the girl had died in an accident and the parents had covered it up.
A British man, whose mother’s house was close to the McCann’s apartment, also won libel damages from 10 British newspapers after they accused him of being involved in Madeleine’s abduction.
In 2011, then British Prime Minister David Cameron ordered a review by London police after being contacted by the McCanns.
The following year, detectives said they had identified 195 “investigative opportunities” and in 2013 the British police began their own investigation - Operation Grange - saying they had identified 38 potential suspects.
Later that year, they released an e-fit image of a number of men. Portuguese prosecutors ordered the case to be reopened by local police.
The new inquiry led Portuguese police to interview four suspects, but they were cleared of any involvement, and a search by British detectives of wasteland near Praia da Luz also failed to provide a breakthrough.
British detectives later suggested Madeleine might have been one of the victims of a series of sexual assaults on British children in Portugal between 2004 and 2010.
In 2017, marking a decade since she disappeared, detectives said they might never solve the case despite still following critical lines of inquiry. However, Operation Grange, which has received more than 12 million pounds ($15 million) in support from the government, continues.
Is there a suspect in the case currently?
In mid-2020, German officials said a 45-year-old German citizen, identified by media as Christian Brueckner, who was in the Algarve in 2007, was a suspect in the case. Brueckner has denied any involvement.
Brueckner is currently serving a seven-year prison sentence in Germany for a rape he committed in Portugal in 2005.
He is under investigation on suspicion of murder in the McCann case but hasn’t been charged. He spent many years in Portugal, including in Praia da Luz, around the time of Madeleine’s disappearance.
Why was Brueckner named as a suspect?
It has been reported that Brueckner frequented the lake which is being searched.
He was driving a yellow and white VW Westfalia campervan in southern Portugal which was reportedly seen near the Praia da Luz resort on 3 May 2007. Madeleine went missing on the same day.
Witnesses reportedly told the police they saw a man described like him - about 6ft tall, slim and white with blond hair- with a toddler near the resort the same night.
German police also said his mobile phone records showed he was in the Praia de Luz area at the time of her disappearance.
Brueckner claimed he was with a German woman “miles away” that night and has denied any involvement in Madeleine’s disappearance.
Brueckner, who was born in Germany in 1976, moved to Portugal in his late teens.
He lived in the Algarve between 1995 and 2007 and burgled hotels and holiday flats as well as trading drugs. He had been jailed for seven years in 2019 for raping and robbing a 72-year-old American woman in her home in the Algarve.
What is this latest search about?
On Monday, Portugal’s Judicial Police issued a statement saying the search was being resumed at the request of German authorities and with help from British officials.
German prosecutors in Braunschweig said in a written statement Tuesday that “criminal procedural measures are currently taking place in Portugal as part of the investigation into the Madeleine McCann case.”
They added that “the measures are being implemented by way of mutual legal assistance by the Portuguese prosecution authorities with the support of officers from the Federal Criminal Police Office.”
“More detailed information on the background is not being released at this time for investigative tactical reasons,” the statement said.
September 2007: Her parents Kate and Gerry McCann are made formal suspects in their daughter’s disappearance.
July 2008: Portuguese police halt their investigation and lift the “arguido” (formal suspects) status of the McCanns and another man, Robert Murat.
July 2013: Scotland Yard says it has “new evidence and new witnesses” in the case and opens a formal investigation into Madeleine’s disappearance.
October 2013: Detectives in Portugal reopen the investigation, citing “new lines of inquiry”.
February 2017: Portugal’s Supreme Court dismisses a long-running libel case against Goncalo Amaral, former head of the local police investigation.
April 2017: The only four official suspects investigated by police are ruled out of the investigation but senior officers say they are pursuing a “significant line of inquiry”.
March 2019: Netflix screens an eight-part documentary about Madeleine’s disappearance. Her parents, who did not participate in the film, feel it could “potentially hinder” the police investigation.
June 2020: Police reveal that a 43-year-old German prisoner - named as Christian Brueckner - has been identified as a suspect in Madeleine’s disappearance.
April 2022: Christian Brueckner is declared an official suspect in the case - he has denied any involvement in her disappearance.
October 2022: Brueckner is charged in Germany with unrelated sexual offences that occurred between 2000 and 2017 in Portugal.
- with inputs from Reuters and AP