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SOFIA (Reuters) - A Bulgarian Roma couple are the biological parents of a four-year-old blonde girl found in Greece last week, DNA tests showed on Friday, clearing some of the mystery around a case that has captured global attention.
Bulgarian prosecutors are investigating whether the mother, Sasha Ruseva, 35, sold her child. Ruseva denies this, but admits leaving a seven-month-old baby in Greece - where she was working as an olive-picker - in 2009 because she could not look after the child and had to return to Bulgaria.
The case has illustrated the plight of Roma gypsies in Bulgaria, the European Union's poorest member state. Many spend their lives close to destitution, illiterate and on the fringes of society.
The four-year-old, called Maria and dubbed the "blonde angel" by Greek media, was found last week by police at a Roma settlement in central Greece. DNA tests showed the Roma couple she was with were not her biological parents.
The couple say the girl was given to them by her mother who could not look after her, but they have been charged with abducting a minor and detained.
The case reminded some of the disappearance of three-year-old Briton Madeleine McCann in Portugal in 2007. Maria is being looked after by a Greek charity, which says it has received thousands of calls from as far away as the United States and Sweden with supposed leads on Maria's possible identity.
The search narrowed this week to a Bulgarian Roma couple, Sasha Ruseva and her husband Atanas Rusev.
"DNA analysis proved that Sasha Ruseva is the biological mother of the girl named Maria," Interior Ministry Chief Commissioner Svetlozar Lazarov told reporters.
"It also showed Atanas Rusev as the biological father."
He declined to comment on whether Bulgaria would now seek the return of Maria. Local social services authorities said they were ready to accommodate the girl if necessary.
"At a later stage, we will take measures to protect the child and perhaps she will be placed in a foster family," said Diana Kaneva, head of the agency for social assistance in the area.
Ruseva and her 37-year-old husband, parents of nine other children aged between two and 20, live in a ramshackle house with a mud floor and unfinished roof in the town of Nikolaevo, 280 km (170 miles) east of Sofia.
"We all live in one room - my husband, I and all the kids," the gaunt and dark-haired Ruseva told reporters late on Thursday, holding her naked two-year-old boy Atanas.
"Life is so hard. We have no jobs and we have no money," she said. "I'd like to have my child back if they say she is mine. We have no money to take care of the kids but ..."
The family lives in a Roma ghetto with no paved roads and crumbling homes. Everywhere there are small children, with shabby clothes and no shoes.
"The family lives mostly on social benefits and child support, as both are long-term unemployed," said Milena Dyankova, an official with the state agency for Child Protection.
Many of the local Roma go for seasonal jobs in neighboring Greece picking olives and oranges, but insist that despite their poverty they would not sell their children.
"If she had sold the child, she would have built a big house," says Angel Rusev, brother of Maria's father. He said he had taken care of the children when the parents were working in Greece between 2008 and 2010.
Whatever the truth of Maria's case, Bulgarian authorities insist some infants have been sold in Greece.
"What we witness is a traffic of pregnant, predominantly Roma women to Greece, where they give birth and sell their babies to Greek couples," said an official at the national commission against people-trafficking, who declined to be named.
"They are often promised about 5,000 levs ($3,500), but often end up with quite less," the official said.
According to the commission, 38 women were identified as victims of such trafficking, mainly to Greece, in 2012, up from 29 in 2011.
Since Maria's discovery, two more cases of suspected child-trafficking have emerged in Greece and are being investigated. In Ireland, two blond, blue-eyed children were briefly removed from Roma families until DNA tests confirmed their parentage, in what some minority rights advocates describe as a spasm of anti-Roma hysteria.
There are an estimated 10 million Roma across Europe. The Council of Europe, which monitors human rights, says they suffer widespread discrimination.
Editing by Andrew Roche