Madeleine McCann, the British girl who disappeared in Portugal in 2007 aged just three, is assumed to be dead and an imprisoned German child abuser is the murder suspect, a German prosecutor said on Thursday.
McCann vanished from her bedroom on May 3 during a family vacation in the Algarve while her parents were dining with friends nearby in the resort of Praia da Luz.
Her disappearance sparked an international search, with missing posters of the little girl's face papered across the world and celebrity appeals for information that could help track her down and bring her kidnappers to justice.
"We assume that the girl is dead," Braunschweig state prosecutor Hans Christian Wolters said. "The public prosecutor's office in Braunschweig is investigating a 43-year-old German national on suspicion of murder."
No body has ever been found.
But the German statements that the young girl was assumed dead were the most authoritative thus far on her fate. Family and supporters had always held out the hope that she might still be alive somewhere.
German police said on Wednesday that while the exact sequence of events was still a subject of investigation, the suspect may have had a sexual motive but it is also possible that he had made a spontaneous decision to kidnap McCann during a break-in of the apartment where she was sleeping.
They are treating the case as suspected murder, though British police said the case remains a missing person inquiry.
McCann's parents said they wanted to find peace but that the German suspect was potentially very significant.
"All we have ever wanted is to find her, uncover the truth and bring those responsible to justice," her parents, Kate and Gerry, said in a statement issued before the German prosecutor spoke.
"We will never give up hope of finding Madeleine alive but whatever the outcome may be, we need to know as we need to find peace."
Drugs And Burglary
Prosecutor Wolters said the suspect is a sex offender with multiple convictions, including for sexual abuse of children.
The suspect, who was not publicly named, lived in the Algarve between 1995 and 2007 and worked in the catering industry, burgled hotels and holiday flats as well as trading drugs, German police said. He is currently in detention over a different matter.
British and German police appealed for information about the man - who lived in Braunschweig, northern Germany, before moving abroad - and released photographs of vehicles - a Volkswagen camper van and a Jaguar - which he used at the time.
Police said they wanted to speak to a thus-far unidentified second person who spoke with the German suspect from a Portuguese phone number on May 3, 2007 at the time of McCann's disappearance.