The Portuguese investigation into the disappearance of Madeleine McCann appeared to be in disarray yesterday as its second-in-command asked for extended leave, just two days after his boss was sacked.
Chief Inspector Tavares Almeida's request for leave is understood to have been made before Goncalo Amaral, head of the regional Policia Judicaria was removed from the case and demoted, but his request for leave – which is highly likely to be approved according to Portuguese newspapers – adds to the inquiry's sense of chaos.
Mr Almeida, 48, is believed to have questioned Kate McCann shortly before she and her husband left for Britain. He has now asked for a licenga sem vencimento – an extended period of absence usually granted for study or training. Such periods of leave have no maximum length but they generally last between a month and a year.
Mr Almeida's departure would deprive the investigation of a man who, according to colleagues, is a shrewd investigator, especially in the field of domestic crime. "He is very good, very committed and persistent," one colleague told yesterday's 24 Horas newspaper. Mr Almeida, who is head of the unit within the Judicial Police in Portimao which is investigating Madeleine's disappearance, has held the rank of chief inspector for six years, previously working at the robbery unit at national HQ in Lisbon.
Alipio Ribeiro, national director of the Judicial Police, said the crucial replacement of Mr Amaral was "a priority" but it would not be made until next Monday at the earliest, as last night marked the start of a bank holiday weekend in Portugal. Guilhermino Encarnacao, currently director of the Judicial Police in Faro, is said to be the most likely replacement.
Mr Amaral was dismissed after he said that British officers only investigated leads and tip-offs which were "convenient" to Kate and Gerry McCann. He later retracted the comments, suggesting he had been talking about the couple's use of private detectives, and not about British police.
Asked about Mr Almeida's reported leave, Clarence Mitchell, spokesman for the McCanns, said the couple merely hoped that any replacement would be in place soon. "Gerry and Kate are very happy to continue to co-operate with the Portuguese inquiry, irrespective of which officers are in charge of it," he said.
"We would hope that any officers who are removed are replaced swiftly and that this is an opportunity to refocus and re-energise the search for Madeleine."
Kate McCann also gave her first interview yesterday since being declared an official suspect in the case, in which she described her enduring sense of grief. "I've had days when if I wasn't crying about Madeleine I was crying from the letters and messages people have sent to us," she told the Leicester Mercury. "It has helped so much."
Mrs McCann said she and her husband were trying to give their twins, Sean and Amelie, as normal a life as possible.
"We tell them that she is missing and that everyone is looking for [Madeleine] and that is the truth," she said. "I don't think there has been one particular low moment, obviously nothing can compare with the night Madeleine went missing."