Three prime suspects for the abduction of Madeleine McCann have been identified by Scotland Yard officers.
Analysis of mobile phone data suggests a burglary gang was operating very near to where she vanished in Portugal in May 2007.
The three men made an unusually high number of calls to each other in the hours after Madeleine was reported missing from her holiday flat in the Algarve.
Police believe the thieves, including at least one Portuguese man, had already carried out one raid in the resort of Praia da Luz, disturbing a child.
That child’s parents, who had been drinking outside the property, rushed inside to find the intruders had fled.
During their bungled investigation Portuguese police attached no significance to the break-in, which came a few days before Madeleine disappeared.
British detectives said this oversight was a ‘disgrace’.
Following the Yard phone breakthrough, informal discussions have taken place about arresting the three burglars and searching their homes and other sites.
It is believed background checks have taken place into their criminal history, their circle of friends and relatives and the vehicles they have used.
British detectives believe the burglars may have panicked after they woke Madeleine up by mistake and decided to take her away with them.
An informed source said: ‘After all the far-fetched theories about what may have happened to Madeleine, there may be a far more simple explanation: that a burglary went horribly wrong.
‘It is the main line of inquiry for British police.’
But Scotland Yard’s hopes of early arrests have been thwarted by the reluctance of the Portuguese authorities to agree to a formal joint investigation.
Because none of the burglars is British, the Met cannot arrest them in Portugal and will need the full cooperation of local police to pursue the inquiry.
Behind the scenes, highly sensitive diplomatic discussions are taking place to resolve the issue so that British detectives can be based in Portugal. Home Secretary Theresa May is being briefed regularly.
‘After all the far-fetched theories about what may have happened to Madeleine, there may be a far more simple explanation: that a burglary went horribly wrong.’
Yard detectives have dismissed the idea that a local man who died in a tractor accident four years ago was responsible for Madeleine’s disappearance.
Portuguese police regard the 40-year-old, a former employee at the Ocean Club holiday complex the McCanns stayed at, as their prime suspect.
Met officers disagree with their reasoning and are concentrating on the burglars.
The compelling mobile phone ‘cell site analysis’ – which has helped solve a number of major crimes – has strengthened suspicions about the gang.
A major appeal based on ‘substantive’ new information – including descriptions of possible suspects – was broadcast on the BBC1’s Crimewatch in October. Days before the appeal, senior detectives revealed mobile phone records may hold the key to solving the case.
Detective Chief Inspector Andy Redwood, who is leading the inquiry, said officers were examining data from thousands of mobiles thought to belong to people who were in Praia da Luz around the time of Madeleine’s disappearance.
The data suggests the men were involved in a burglary a few days before Madeleine’s disappearance during which they woke a another child
Police are trying to identify the owner of each phone to build up a picture of exactly who was in the area.
More than 3,000 people live in Praia da Luz, while holidaymakers and seasonal workers visit from around the world. ‘This is not just a general trawl,’ said Mr Redwood. ‘It’s a targeted attack on that data to see if it assists us to find out what happened to Madeleine at that time.’
Mr Redwood said officers had been unable to identify, six years on, a large number of mobile phones, especially those bought on a pay-as-you-go basis.
The records also contain information on which numbers were dialled and when. It is thought some numbers might appear on police intelligence systems, or be linked to criminals.
According to Scotland Yard, the phone records were looked at by the Portuguese police investigation but in no detail. Scotland Yard announced it was launching an investigation into Madeleine’s disappearance in July – after spending two years reviewing the case under the codename Operation Grange.
Madeleine, whose parents Gerry and Kate live in Rothley, Leicestershire, was days away from her fourth birthday when she was abducted.
Earlier this week it emerged that the bill for the Yard’s probe has topped £6million. The total is now likely to exceed £10million, with £88,000 having gone on travel costs so far
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