Greek police race to find identity of girl found in gypsy camp

About 4 years old and going by the name Maria, the girl looked nothing like the couple she lived with.

A four-year-old girl, found living with a Roma couple in central Greece, in a handout photo distributed by the Greek police. Reuters
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ATHENS // Greek police raided the camp in search of drugs and weapons, part of a crackdown on illegal activity in the Gypsy community. But during the operation, an accompanying prosecutor noticed something else that stood out: a blond, blue-eyed little girl.

Around 4 years old and going by the name Maria, the girl looked nothing like the couple she lived with, officials said on Friday. DNA tests proved she was not their child, and further investigation raised even more suspicions: authorities allege the mother claimed to have given birth to six children in less than 10 months, while 10 of the 14 children the couple registered as their own were unaccounted for.

As Greek officials now try to figure out the girl’s identity and whether the couple was linked to child-trafficking rings, experts were using the case to point out the severe weaknesses in the country’s birth-registration system.

The child was found on Wednesday near Farsala in central Greece. Police say they also found drugs and unregistered firearms in other parts of the Gypsy, or Roma, settlement.

The director of Greece’s “A child’s smile” charity, which is taking care of the girl, praised an observant prosecutor who went on the camp raid along with dozens of police. “She saw a little blond head poking out from under the bedclothes,” Costas Giannopoulos said. “It struck her as odd, and that’s how it all started.”

The couple, a 39-year-old man and a 40-year-old woman, were arrested and charged with abducting a minor. The Greek police have asked Interpol for assistance in helping find the child’s real family, while Giannopoulos’ charity said it has sought the same assistance from international groups for lost or abused children.

“Her features suggest that she might be from an eastern or northern [European] country,” regional police chief Panayiotis Tziovaras said.

The suspects are said to have offered conflicting accounts about how they came to have the child – that the girl was found in a blanket, that she was handed to them by strangers or that she had a foreign father.

But their lawyer, Marietta Palavra, said they took her out of charity, through an intermediary, while she was just days old from a foreign stranger who said she could not support her daughter.

Ms Palavra acknowledged that Roma and other Greeks have been known to make multiple registrations of children to get more welfare benefits from the state, but insisted that she was not saying her clients had been motivated by that.

“Just because (the suspect) had forged documents, it doesn’t make her a kidnapper,” she said. “The couple loved the girl as if she were their own.”

* Associated Press