ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greek police on Monday released photographs of a couple charged with abducting a girl and judicial authorities put the pair in pre-trial custody, as an international search for the child's biological parents intensified. Authorities also scrambled to uncover fraudulent birth declarations related to possible welfare benefit scams involving the couple and others.
Investigators trying to establish how the girl known only as "Maria" came to be with the detained Gypsy couple are considering a range of potential scenarios, from child trafficking to even simple charity.
The suspects were also identified as 39-year-old Christos Salis and a 40-year-old woman who used the names Eleftheria Dimopoulou and Selini Sali. They were arrested last week, after police found the girl when they raided a Gypsy, or Roma, encampment near the central Greek town of Farsala. Her DNA shows she is not the couple's child.
Authorities allege Dimopoulou claimed to have given birth to six children in less than 10 months, and 10 of the 14 children the couple had registered as their own are unaccounted for. It is not clear whether the 10 children are real or were made up to cheat the Greek welfare system.
Police say the two suspects received about 2,500 euros ($3,420) a month in subsidies from three different cities. In Athens, municipal authorities suspended the director of the capital's records office as well as two senior officials pending the conclusion of a fraud investigation.
The couple has given conflicting accounts of how they came to have the girl, according to police. A defense lawyer has said they were motivated by charity, after being approached by an intermediary for a destitute foreign mother who reportedly could not afford to raise the child.
Photographs released of "Maria" have triggered a global outpouring of sympathy and possible tips to police but no breakthrough yet in identifying her or her parents. The "Smile of the Child" charity, which is caring for the girl, said it had received more than 8,000 calls and thousands of emails — some with details and photographs of missing children — from people in the United States, Scandinavia, other parts of Europe, Australia and South Africa.
"The case has touched a chord with lots of people from many countries," Panayiotis Pardalis, a spokesman for the charity, told The Associated Press. "This case is now giving hope to parents of missing children."
He said the charity had forwarded all tips to the police but that most people were just conveying their concern. A dental examination showed the child is older than previously thought, 5 or 6 years old instead of four, the charity said.
"We had been seeking details for a girl aged 4. So the fact that she is older changes the nature of the search," charity director Costas Yannopoulos said. "One thing that has impressed us is that the little girl is not asking for anyone ... She is relaying the kindness she has been shown for the last three days to her dolls."
In Britain, tabloid newspapers drew parallels with missing girl Madeleine McCann, who disappeared at age 3 from a Portuguese resort six years ago. The mother of Ben Needham, a British boy missing in Greece since 1991, said she was thrilled by the news of the girl's recovery. Her toddler was 21 months old when he vanished.
Interpol, the international police agency, has 38 girls younger than 6 on its missing persons database but none of them reportedly fit the mystery girl's description. Police have raided dozens of Gypsy settlements across Greece in the last few weeks, including four more camps Monday in Athens and Thessaloniki — triggering concern by human rights groups that the Gypsy community as a whole was being targeted for an alleged crime involving a few of its members.
"I must say that we are flabbergasted with the hastiness, the hypocrisy ... in all this affair," Gregory Valianatos, of the rights group Greek Helsinki Monitor, told AP. "Certainly we care about the (child) ... But we are not prepared to see another pogrom in the name of law and order against Roma lifestyle."
Theodora Tongas and Derek Gatopoulos in Athens, Costas Kantouris in Thessaloniki, Lori Hinnant in Paris and Raphael Satter in London contributed.
Smile of the Child: http://www.hamogelo.gr/