Europe

Maria: Greek Roma couple charged with abduction

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Media captionThe Roma community where the girl lived has rallied around the couple

A Roma couple have been formally charged in Greece with abducting a young blonde girl, and they have been placed in detention pending a trial.

The girl, named Maria, was found during a raid on a Roma camp in central Greece last week.

DNA tests showed that she was not related to the couple, who insist they were given her legitimately.

Maria is being cared for by a charity in Athens, which has received more than 8,000 calls after an appeal.

The Roma couple appeared before judges on Monday to answer charges of abducting a minor and holding false papers.

The 39-year-old man and 40-year-old woman were identified by Greek police as Christos Salis and Eleftheria Dimopoulou.

Image caption The Roma couple were identified as Christos Salis (R) and Eleftheria Dimopoulou (L)

The Roma community where the girl was found has rallied around the couple, saying they looked after her well.

The head of the Roma association in Farsala in central Greece says the pair treated her better than their biological children and that she loved them.

The brother of the man claiming to be Maria's adoptive father repeated the defence that she had been given to them lawfully after her birth, says the BBC's Mark Lowen in Athens.

Ahead of Monday's hearing, a lawyer representing the Roma couple, Kostas Katsavos, said that they were carrying out a search for the girl's mother.

He said the couple claim the woman had given Maria to them because she could not look after her daughter.

"Our clients' claim is that 'we never abducted this child, we just adopted her' in a way that was not legal, that we can confess," said Mr Katsavos.

But the couple are suspected by social workers of kidnapping the girl and sending her out to beg, or involving her in a sex ring.

Police initially raided the Roma camp to search for drugs and weapons.

They noticed the lack of resemblance between the blonde-haired, blue-eyed, pale-skinned little girl and her parents, and found further discrepancies when they investigated the family's documents.

The Smile of the Child charity told the BBC that medical examinations show Maria is in fact either five or six years old and not four as was previously reported, after a birth certificate was found to be a forgery.

'Great hope'

The couple had registered different numbers of children with different regional family registries.

Image caption An appeal has been launched throughout Europe

The Greek authorities say the couple were in possession of false papers which suggested the woman had given birth to six children within a 10-month period.

When questioned about how they came to have Maria, the couple made "constantly changing claims", Thessalia Province Police Director Vassilis Halatsis said.

Through Interpol, Greece has requested assistance from other European countries.

Police decided to appeal internationally as the girl looked as if she might be from northern or eastern Europe.

The case has also brought a response from two families in the UK with long-missing children.

Ben Needham from Sheffield disappeared aged 21 months while on a family holiday on the Greek island of Kos in 1991. His sister said the discovery of the blonde-haired girl in central Greece gave them "great hope".

A spokesman for Kate and Gerry McCann, whose three-year-old daughter Madeleine went missing in Portugal in 2007, said the case also gave them hope that she would one day be found alive.

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