Little Maria's Roma family in Bulgaria wants her back

GURKOVO, BULGARIA (AFP) - The Bulgarian Roma family of Maria, wrongly thought to be an abducted western European child when she was found in Greece last week, wants her back but fears social services will keep her.

"Give us Maria! We will take her home and share our bread with her," her eldest sister Katia Ruseva said on Saturday in the central Bulgarian town of Gurkovo, where she lives with her husband and two children. "We will not give her away for anything in the world."

After she was found living with a Roma couple in a camp in Greece on Oct 16, Maria's blond hair and green eyes were beamed on TV screens worldwide, making her a poster child for dozens of Western parents with missing children. But on Friday, DNA testing confirmed the parents of "the little blond angel" to be a Roma couple living in dire poverty in central Bulgaria.

The case revealed entrenched prejudice toward the Roma community and revived investigations into child trafficking, but the girl's sister, who also has hay blond hair and freckles, insisted her parents did not sell Maria.

"I used to care for my eight brothers and sisters when my parents worked in Greece. When they came back, mum told me they had left a baby there. She did not have the money to pay for its passport," Katia said.

Her parents, Mrs Sasha Ruseva and Mr Atanas Rusev, disappeared from their home in the nearby town of Nikolaevo on Friday morning, together with three of their children. Police said they were still in Bulgaria and not under arrest.

Maria's mother had told Bulgarian media earlier that she would take her daughter back if the DNA results were positive, but she is now under investigation for allegedly selling her girl in 2009, when Maria was seven months old.

A neighbour of Katia's in Gurkovo, Ms Nadka Chakarova, choked back tears as she remembered how failure to register her granddaughter Stanka when she was born in Greece had forced her to smuggle her over the border.

"We could have sold her. There were candidates who approached us in the hospital in Heraklion offering a lot of money," she said. "The child does not have any ID or medical insurance now. I wanted to register her, but the municipality officials tell me to go to Greece," Ms Chakarova said. "With what money?"

The Rusev family's neighbours claim that a TV network offered to put the family up in a flat in Sofia in exchange for an exclusive interview.

"Let them leave my parents alone. Mum did not take any money to abandon Maria. We lived in the very same misery after her return from Greece," Katia said.

The Roma ghetto in Nikolaevo was also on edge. The social services tried to take the Rusev's three other younger children away on Thursday but neighbours prevented it, witnesses said.