Detectives investigating the disappearance of Madeleine McCann are looking for a lone intruder who sexually abused five girls during break-ins at holiday homes.
The tanned, dark-haired man is suspected of breaking into 12 properties where British families were staying in the Algarve, Portugal, between 2004 and 2010. In four of the incidents, five girls aged from seven to 10 were sexually assaulted. These attacks happened from 2004 to 2006, before Madeleine vanished in 2007.
Detective Chief Inspector Andy Redwood said tracing the man, who has “a vile interest in young, white, female children”, is “a primary concern”.
Madeleine’s parents, Kate and Gerry McCann, were briefed on the latest developments before they were revealed yesterday.
Mr Redwood said: “I’m sure the public will understand that the significant features of this offending – a man with a vile interest in young, white, female children, who he is attacking in their beds while they are on holiday with their families – has got a close resonance to the features of Madeleine’s disappearance.
“We really need to identify the offender, to bring to a close the trauma and tragedy these families have suffered, and then seek to establish whether this is connected to Madeleine’s disappearance.”
The potentially linked break-ins had previously been discounted by Portuguese investigators because they were spread over a wide area and there were no apparent attempts at abduction.
Nine of the 12 incidents were reported to Portuguese police at the time they happened, but British investigators only became aware of three of those when the victims came forward in response to televised appeals last autumn. In six of the offences, the man sat on or got into bed with young girls and, even when he was disturbed, witnesses said he remained calm.
He spoke English slowly, with a foreign accent and possibly slurred speech, had unkempt hair and was unshaven, and smelled strange. Some witnesses said he had a pot belly. In two break-ins he was wearing a distinctive burgundy long-sleeved top, which some witnesses said had a white circle on the back.
Mr Redwood said: “It is really critical for us to identify this offender and prove or disprove whether he was involved in Madeleine’s disappearance.”
Mr Redwood said that if names are put forward for the most serious assault, his team will be able to eliminate suspects from their inquiry. This suggests they have DNA on file.
Last autumn the Scotland Yard team appealed for help in identifying a man who was seen carrying a child towards the sea on the night that Madeleine, then aged three, vanished.