Police said yesterday they have found the body of a nine-year-old Chinese girl, Zhang Zixin, from Hangzhou, whose week-long disappearance riveted the nation.
Xiangshan county police said they found the body in the East China Sea off Shipu town at about 3pm local time.
A DNA test to identify the body was conducted shortly thereafter, the authorities said in a statement.
Zixin lived with her paternal grandparents in Chun'an, a rural part of the Zhejiang provincial capital of Hangzhou, and was abducted by a couple from Guangzhou who had rented a room in their house for less than two weeks, local media reported.
The middle-aged couple - the police have identified the male tenant only as Liang and the female tenant as Xie - told Zixin's grandmother on July 4 that they wanted her as a flower girl for a friend's wedding in Shanghai, and promised to take her home afterwards.
They initially kept in contact with Zixin's father over his WeChat social media account, but turned their phones off on July 7. Zixin's family then reported her missing.
On July 8, the bodies of the couple were found in Dongqian Lake, an hour's drive from the spot where the last image of Zixin was recorded. Local police said they had likely committed suicide.
The missing girl sparked a massive search in the area around Songlangshan Beach, where she was last seen with the two suspects in surveillance camera footage on the night of July 7. The couple were spotted by a camera three hours later in a taxi without the girl.
The taxi driver recalled that the couple did not talk to each other over the hour-long ride, Beijing News reported.
Last Thursday, the Xiangshan county authorities beefed up the search force to 500 people, from 300, and roped in fishermen as well as local volunteers.
Police also moved the search from land to sea and expanded the search radius tenfold with the help of drones, speedboats and rescue dogs.
The middle-aged couple, Liang and Xie, rent a room in the house of Zixin's grandparents in Hangzhou.
They tell the grandmother that they want Zixin to be a flower girl for a friend's wedding in Shanghai, promising to take her home afterwards.
The couple are no longer contactable by phone.
Zixin is seen with them in surveillance camera footage around Songlangshan Beach. The couple are captured again on a taxi camera three hours later.
The bodies of the couple are found in a lake an hour's drive from where Zixin is last seen.
Zixin's body is found.
The case attracted national attention in China, with state-run outlets live-streaming footage of police on speedboats conducting search operations.
Until yesterday, Chinese netizens continued to hold out hope that Zixin would be found alive, and many were crushed by news reports about her body being discovered.
"This is madness. I've followed this news for several days, and I cried when I saw this," said one Weibo user, in response to the police statement posted by Hangzhou newspaper Doushikuaibao which drew over 50,000 comments and shares.
"My heart is broken. This child did no wrong," said another.
Public attention over the case had intensified with theories about cult affiliations, after it was found that Liang's social media was filled with religious imagery of folk gods local to the Chaoshan region of Guangdong province.
But police said yesterday that they did not find any links between the two suspects and religious organisations. Liang was reported to have had a son and daughter but rarely visited or contacted them.
Xie's brother has also been quoted as saying that the couple had been living together for over a decade but never married.
Based on Liang's social media postings, the couple had travelled to 21 cities since March.
Following the police announcement yesterday, Zixin's father Zhang Jun took to Weibo to grieve. Mr Zhang and his wife are separated, and both of them work in bigger cities far away from Chun'an.
"I just heard that my Zixin has left this world and has gone to heaven," wrote Mr Zhang.
"While we are not fated to be father and daughter in this life, I hope she will still be my daughter in the next life, so I can take care of her."
Zixin's mother, who gave birth at the age of 17 and has not seen her daughter in years, came under suspicion after she returned to Chun'an on July 8 to sign divorce papers.
But she insisted that she knew nothing of the girl's disappearance till July 10, when a relative told her about it.