LARISSA, Greece (Reuters) - A Roma couple accused of abducting a mystery four-year-old girl dubbed the “blonde angel” by Greek media told a court on Monday that her biological mother willingly gave her to them as a baby because she could not look after her.
The discovery of the girl, known as Maria, has riveted Greece and prompted thousands of calls with leads from across the world as authorities try to track down her real parents, as DNA tests have shown she was not born to the Romas.
The case has raised questions about whether children are being stolen to order and whether the couple were part of a wider child trafficking ring - in addition to deepening mistrust between the Roma community and the Greeks.
They were arrested after police, who raided a Roma camp in central Greece last week in search of drugs and weapons, found the girl with pale skin and blue eyes who did not resemble the family she was living with.
The couple deny they snatched the girl and say they took her under their care after her mother handed the girl to them shortly after giving birth.
“It was an adoption that was not exactly legal but took place with the mother’s consent,” Constantinos Katsavos, one of the lawyers representing the 39-year-old man, told reporters, adding that is what the couple testified in court.
The Roma couple were ordered held in custody pending trial after responding to charges of abduction and procuring false documents behind closed doors as more than a dozen policemen stood guard outside.
So far more than 5,000 people, from Texas to Sweden, have phoned the charity looking after Maria to offer clues or search for their missing children.
Based on her characteristics, police believe Maria, who utters just a few words in Greek and Roma dialect, is eastern or northern European.
Parallels have been drawn to the case of Britons Madeleine McCann, who vanished while on holiday in Portugal in 2007, when she was three, and Ben Needham, who disappeared on the Greek island of Kos in 1991, when he was a toddler.
In the sunny, bustling square outside the court in the city of Larissa where the Roma couple faced magistrates, members of the Roma community gathered to show their support and said they were being unfairly stigmatized.
“They are completely innocent. These are all fairy tales and we’re going to prove it to society,” Babis Dimitriou, the head of the local Roma community, told Reuters.
“They accuse the Roma of everything - of stealing, of snatching kids. Do these things only happen among our race? This is a huge insult for us,” he said.
Police have found the woman had two different identification documents and other papers suggested the couple had up to 14 children, but six were registered as having been born within less than 10 months.
“It’s unfair,” a Roma woman who gave her name as Kyriaki said outside the court on hearing the decision to hold the couple in custody. “She raised this child since she was a baby.”
(This story is corrected with year when Ben Needham disappeared to 1991 from 2001 in 10th paragraph)
Editing by Deepa Babington and Alison Williams