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By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 12, 2007

PARIS -- When little Madeleine McCann disappeared from her family's hotel room in Portugal on May 3, every parent's worst nightmare became Europe's summer-long saga.

Saturday marked 100 days that the blond-haired, blue-eyed British child has been missing -- and widely presumed kidnapped -- after being left unattended by her parents while they dined at a nearby restaurant. Today, following an unprecedented media frenzy, Maddy, as she is known, is the most recognizable 4-year-old in Europe.

Author J.K. Rowling reportedly pledged half of the $6 million reward money being offered for Madeleine's return and allowed posters of the child to be distributed around the world with the release of the latest Harry Potter book. Soccer star David Beckham filmed a video urging people to be on the lookout for her.

Rock performer Bryan Adams dedicated a concert in Malta to Madeleine and has allowed his hit "(Everything I Do) I Do It for You" to be used on her Web site ( http://www.findmadeleine.com), which its operator says has recorded more than 1 billion hits from 80 million unique visitors since it was launched 12 weeks ago. The site has drawn $1.9 million in donations to support the search efforts of Madeleine's parents, Kate and Gerry McCann.

The global publicity campaign has sparked unconfirmed sightings of Madeleine as far away as Argentina and Guatemala. Publicity events have been held from California to Kabul. Tens of thousands of posters seeking her return have been distributed in 28 languages under the caption "Look into my eyes," lyrics from Adams's song that draw attention to a key identifying marker -- the pupil of Madeleine's right eye runs into her iris.

But all the attention has generated little evidence of what happened to Madeleine. The dearth of information has fueled charges that Portuguese police botched the investigation. It also has bred wild theories about the child's fate, cast an increasingly uncomfortable spotlight on her parents and underscored the grim reality that Madeleine McCann seems to have disappeared without a trace.

"A kidnapping case like this comes along every 15 or 20 years, and really, there's been nothing like this," said Paul Tuohy, chief executive of Britain's National Missing Persons Helpline.

"Abductions of this nature are very, very rare, with a family abroad on vacation, relaxed and feeling safe and chilling out," he said. "Combine the factor that she's from a well-educated, middle-class family that is unique in terms of what it was able to do, and you have a very, very small girl who's vulnerable, and the media latched on to it, and it snowballed from there."

The media lather has been compared to the frenzy surrounding the death of Princess Diana in 1997.

"There is a parallel with Diana -- editors know there is something readers do not want them to do, and that's to get too close to the McCanns in the critical sense, and to this day the public does not have much idea of what happened" the night Madeleine disappeared, said Brian Cathcart, a journalism professor at Kingston University in London. British newspapers are playing down Portuguese media reports of the parents' possible involvement, he said, because "there are things editors are driven by that are not very rational, but which is bigger than they are."

In a telephone interview, Madeleine's father said that he and his wife have "done everything in our power to cooperate completely with the Portuguese police," but that Portuguese newspapers quoting unnamed police who say "Maddy is dead, and we were involved, is incredibly difficult to deal with."

But he added, "We should be subjected to the same scrutiny as anyone else."


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