Roma couple due in Greek court over 'abducted' girl

ATHENS (AFP) - A Roma couple will appear in a Greek court on Monday over the suspected abduction of a young girl whose discovery has prompted thousands of calls from parents with missing children.

Police found the blonde-haired, green-eyed girl named Maria in a Roma camp in the central town of Farsala on Wednesday, and the couple was arrested after DNA testing showed they were not related.

While police believe the girl - dubbed the "blonde angel" by Greek media - was abducted at birth, the couple claims she was given up by her biological mother because she could not raise her.

"We're talking about a woman who could not raise this child and who gave it to the couple in 2009 through a third party shortly after her birth," a lawyer for the couple, Marietta Palavra, said over the weekend.

"There has been no kidnapping, no robbery, no trafficking," insisted her colleague Konstantinos Katsavos, who also represents the 40-year-old woman and her 39-year-old husband.

"They did not buy the child," he said.

According to the couple's lawyers, the biological mother does not have Greek citizenship.

Greek charity Smile of the Child, who have been looking after Maria, say they have been inundated with calls and emails.

"Until Sunday evening, we had received more than 8,000 calls and thousands of emails," charity spokesman Panagiotis Pardalis said.

He said the organisation's site had received more than 200,000 visits and its Facebook page about half a million.

"It is either families (of missing children) or even unrelated persons (who contact us from abroad), sending us photographs and other information. We forward all the information to the police," he said.

Maria is described as a four-year old, but local media have reported she could be a couple of years older.

"Anything is possible. (Medical) experts will examine her and will try to determine her age and possibly her origin," Pardalis added.

"This case has caused a huge international interest. It has brought to the surface the subject of child trafficking and has given hope to so many parents whose children are missing," he said.

Maria's case has even given a glimmer of hope to the parents of British girl Madeleine McCann who have been searching for their daughter since May 2007 when she vanished from their holiday apartment in Portugal.

Greek authorities are working with Interpol to trace Maria's biological parents in a Europe-wide search, according to a police source.

The state-run Athens News Agency reported Sunday police were investigating hospitals and childcare agencies for possible child trafficking, suspecting a ring operating between Bulgaria and Greece.

"The police are investigating every possible angle," a spokeswoman at the local Larissa police station said.

In January 2011, police had arrested more than a dozen people in the two neighbouring Balkan countries, for the trafficking of newborn babies to Greece.

The ring arranged for pregnant Bulgarian women, primarily of Roma origin, to give birth in Greece with their babies then sold off in illegal adoption procedures.

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