Greek police release photos, IDs of suspects accused of taking girl

| Monday, Oct. 21, 2013, 9:27 p.m.

ATHENS — 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 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 Roma couple are considering a range of potential scenarios, from child trafficking to simple charity.

The suspects were identified as 39-year-old Christos Salis and a 40-year-old woman who uses the names Eleftheria Dimopoulou and Selini Sali. They were arrested last week, when police found the girl in a raid of a Roma, or Gypsy, 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 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 $3,420 a month in subsidies from three 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, police say. A defense lawyer has claimed that they were approached by an intermediary for a destitute foreign mother who could not afford to raise the child and they took her in, motivated by charity.

Photographs released of “Maria” triggered a global outpouring of sympathy and tips to police but no breakthrough has been made in identifying her or her parents.

The “Smile of the Child” charity, which is caring for the girl, said it received thousands of calls and emails.

“The case has touched a chord with lots of people from many countries,” said Panayiotis Pardalis, a spokesman for the charity. “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.

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