Voxant Newsroom/Reuters

Assault on girl, 10, may be key to Madeleine case

A 10-year-old British girl was sexually assaulted in Praia da Luz in 2005 - possibly by a man who is now a key suspect in Madeleine McCann's disappearance, the Metropolitan Police have revealed.

The attack - two years before Madeleine went missing - is thought to have been the work of a suspected serial child abuser targeting young Britons on holiday in the Algarve. It is one of 18 linked incidents over six years across the region but the first attack identified in Praia da Luz, where the three-year-old vanished, the UK Independent has reported.

The cases have been linked by officers as the attacker usually walks into the home and sits on the child's bed or tries to get under the sheets before escaping. In a number of cases, the attacker has been disturbed by the child's parents.

The serial abuser - described as having a deep tan and a "stale" smell - has emerged as a key suspect for the abduction and possible murder of Madeleine. Detectives are investigating the possibility that he was a dustman after some of the nine sexual assaults on children aged six to 12 took place early in the morning at the time of refuse rounds.

The new cases highlighted failures by Portuguese police to pass on all the relevant information. Detective Chief Inspector Andy Redwood said his major concern was a breakdown in communication between local police and senior colleagues in Portugal which meant that "sitting in police exhibit stores somewhere in the Algarve could be forensic material that we and the Policia Judiciaria are not aware of."

Scotland Yard said fresh appeals last month led to information about five attacks and one "near miss" that they did not previously know about. All of them - bar the attack on the 10-year-old - had been reported to the Portuguese police, but not passed to the Scotland Yard team investigating the case.

Officers are believed to have forensic material - thought to be DNA - retrieved from one of the attacks but have no match on the Portuguese database, or in Britain. "Our sense is... we're looking at one offender but that does not preclude the fact there may be others involved," Det Ch Insp Redwood said.

-The Uk Independent