McCanns Return Home as Suspects

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Rui Vieira / AFP / Getty

The parents of missing toddler Madeleine McCann, Kate and Gerry McCann, carry their two-year-old twin children Sean and Amelie as they arrive back in Britain, September 9, 2007.

Getting back to everyday life is never easy after a long summer break. But few will find it tougher than the McCann family. Four and a half months after vacating their pretty Leicestershire village in the heart of England, Kate and Gerry McCann and their two-year-old twins finally quit Portugal's Algarve coast for home yesterday, leaving a list of unanswered questions behind them.

On May 3, the couple's daughter Madeleine went missing in the Portuguese resort of Praia da Luz, apparently abducted from her bed after the parents — both 39-year-old doctors — left the three-year-old and her siblings unattended to dine with friends nearby. Since then, the McCanns have spearheaded a high-profile international campaign to find Madeleine. They have traveled across Europe and to the U.S., attended an audience with the Pope and roped in celebrities such as footballers David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo to keep the case in the public eye and encourage the police to redouble their efforts to find Madeleine. But by the time both submitted to lengthy interrogations by police late last week, the couple themselves had become the focus of the investigation.

Based, it seems, on forensic evidence gathered from the family's holiday apartment and rental car, both have been named arguidos, official suspects under Portuguese law. But neither McCann has been arrested or charged with a crime, and no travel restrictions have been placed on them. "While we are returning to the U.K., it does not mean we are giving up our search for Madeleine," said Gerry McCann, moments after landing in the U.K. Sunday afternoon. "As parents, we cannot give up on our daughter until we know what has happened," he said, flanked by his wife and with son Sean fast asleep in his arms. To the suspicion of the couple's involvement, Madeleine's father was defiant. "Despite there being so much we wish to say, we are unable to do so, except to say this," he said, pausing as his voice buckled under the emotion: "we played no part in the disappearance of our lovely daughter, Madeleine."

Portuguese police are expected to take further action in the case in the coming days, with local prosecutors scheduled to examine evidence Monday. Police are also awaiting further results of forensic tests being carried out in Britain.

But it's far from clear how strong the evidence is against the couple. Robert Murat, a resident of Praia da Luz, was named an arguido at the start of the investigation but has protested his innocence and has never faced any charges. Press reports in Portugal and the U.K. have suggested that new forensic evidence may finally provide stronger clues about what might have happened to Madeleine. Yet false leads and dashed hopes have characterized the investigation almost from the start. Philomena McCann, the sister of Gerry McCann, told Britain's Sky News that the Portuguese police were suggesting that her sister-in-law accidentally killed Madeleine, hid the body and then disposed of it. "I've never heard anything so ludicrous in my life," she told Sky News. Philomena McCann told ITV News that the Portuguese police also offered Kate McCann a plea deal through her lawyer. Justine McGuinness, who heads an organization that had been raising money to search for Madeleine, told the BBC that the Portuguese authorities had based their allegations on blood found in a car rented 25 days after the child's disappearance.

But suspicions and resentment have flourished. Criticism by the British media of the way Portuguese police have handled the case has helped stoke hostility towards the McCanns in Portugal. Last month, the couple said they would sue the Portuguese newspaper Tal & Qual over its report alleging police believe they accidentally killed their daughter. In interviews, the McCanns have expressed anger, despair and guilt over their decision to leave Madeleine alone. Choosing to leave Portugal without her will surely only make those feelings stronger.
With reporting by Martha de la Cal/Lisbon