Portuguese prosecutors on Thursday said a man had been formally identified as a suspect in the disappearance of British girl Madeleine McCann nearly 15 years ago.
It is the first time Portuguese prosecutors have identified an official suspect in the case since Kate and Gerry McCann, Madeleine's parents, were named suspects in 2007. They were later cleared.
Madeleine, then 3, disappeared from her bedroom on May 3, 2007, during a family holiday in the Algarve while her parents were dining with friends nearby in the resort of Praia da Luz.
A statement was issued on Thursday by the Portimao section of the Faro department of criminal investigation and prosecution which, according to a translation, said a person was made an “arguido” – a named or formal suspect – a day earlier.
Prosecutors in Faro, the Algarve's main city, did not publicly name the man but said he was identified as a suspect by German authorities at their request.
Kate and Gerry McCann on Friday said they “welcomed the news”, adding: “Even thought the possibility may be slim, we have not given up hope that Madeleine is still alive and we will be reunited with her.”
German police said in June 2020 that Madeleine was assumed dead and that convicted child abuser and drug dealer Christian Brueckner was probably responsible.
But, since then, Brueckner, 45, has not been charged with any crime related to the disappearance.
He is behind bars in Germany for raping a 72-year-old American woman in the same area of the Algarve where Madeleine went missing in 2007. He was sentenced to seven years in jail in 2019.
Brueckner has denied any involvement in the disappearance of Madeleine.
Jim Gamble, the former head of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, who worked on the investigation into the child’s disappearance, told BBC Breakfast: “My own gut feeling on it – from the moment the Germans began to release information two years ago – was that this was the best fit.
“You have proximity, you have opportunity and you have a profile with regards to an offender that absolutely fits in a way that no others have.
“This is all positive ... and I wouldn’t be surprised if charges did follow.”
Prosecutors said the investigation was carried out with co-operation from British and German authorities.
Brueckner lived in the Algarve between 1995 and 2007 and burgled hotels and holiday flats, court documents seen by Reuters in 2020 suggest.
He also falsified passports and was caught stealing diesel from a Portuguese harbour.
Portugal's Judiciary Police handed over documents with hundreds of names related to Madeleine's case, including Brueckner's, to British authorities in 2012, the force said.
German police received their first tip-off linking him to Madeleine's case in 2013.
The move by Portuguese authorities could allow Brueckner to be transferred to the Algarve for formal questioning.
The German newspaper Bild reported that his lawyer Friedrich Fuelscher said the Portuguese decision appeared to be a “procedural trick”.
Reports suggested the move could be linked to the country’s statute of limitations, which does not generally allow crimes that carry a maximum prison sentence to go to trial after 15 years have elapsed.
This would mean Brueckner could no longer be charged in Portugal after May 3.
In Portuguese law, arguido status can be a preliminary move before an arrest or charges being brought.
The Metropolitan Police in London continue to treat Madeleine’s disappearance as a missing person's inquiry.