The focus of the Madeleine McCann case appeared to shift back on to the search for the missing girl last night, as it emerged that Interpol is investigating a photograph taken three weeks ago in Morocco.
The image – taken by a Spanish couple at the end of August – shows a small, fair-haired girl being carried on the back of an adult, although it is impossible to tell with the naked eye if the picture is of Madeleine.
A number of claimed "sightings" of Madeleine have turned out to be false leads, including one in August when a child psychologist said she was "100 per cent sure" she had seen the girl in Belgium.
But last night's release of the photograph breathed fresh life into the hunt after it became the fourth reported sighting of Madeleine in Morocco.
A Spanish woman said she saw the girl, who went missing on 3 May, later that month in the north of the country holding the hand of a Muslim woman, reports claimed. She said a gust of wind blew up a hat which the girl was wearing, revealing blonde hair beneath.
Previously, two people had reported seeing a girl looking like Madeleine in Marrakech. All three witnesses gave similar descriptions of the girl's companions: a blonde woman and a man aged around 45, with dark skin and black hair.
The latest photograph was taken by Clara Torres, from Albacete, south of Madrid, on 31 August. It is understood she did not at first believe that it could be Madeleine but, following the reports of other sightings in Morocco, she passed the image on to police. A Spanish government spokesman would only say: "The police are taking the claim seriously enough to have sent it on to their colleagues at Interpol."
Ms Torres told the Spanish radio station Cope: "On the morning of 31 August I was with my family and my partner, we were going from Chaouen to Tetuan. On the road, in a town called Zinat ... we saw a group of people and took a photo. As soon as I took the photo we were struck by the little girl, who was very blonde."
Later, after seeing the other reports, she said: "I ran to the computer, downloaded the photos and started to amplify the photo and when we saw it we realised yes, it could be her. It sent shivers down my spine."
The McCanns have obtained a copy of the picture through lawyers. Clarence Mitchell, their spokesman, said: "Gerry and Kate are keen for it to be analysed as quickly as possible."
Mr McCann was said to be "encouraged" by developments, which also included reports that police in Leicestershire do not believe there is enough evidence to charge the girl's parents. The Portuguese authorities are said to have concluded that they "need a body" in order to press the McCanns further. On his blog at FindMadeleine. com, Mr McCann thanked the public for messages of support and said: "It means so much to us to know that so many people have not been deceived by rumour, innuendo and wild speculation. Most importantly the search for Madeleine carries on and our family have not given up hope of finding her."