An intruder with a distinctive odour, who is suspected of breaking into holiday homes to sexually assault young girls, has emerged as a new suspect in the disappearance of Madeleine McCann.
Police believe the individual, who is described as a "tanned, dark-haired man", may be responsible for 12 break-ins over six years at resorts in the Algarve including Praia da Luz where Madeleine went missing in 2007.
The man – who had a distinctive smell of tobacco and stale aftershave – may be a dustman as refuse carts were heard in the area at the time of some of the early morning break-ins.
It emerged yesterday that three of the cases were reported to the Portuguese police but were not passed to the Scotland Yard team amid the first signs of public frustration over delays in the Portuguese criminal justice system.
In four of the cases, the man assaulted five white girls, aged between seven and 10, while they were in their beds between 2004 and 2006. It is believed that Portuguese police obtained a DNA sample from one of the attacks but there has been no match on the country’s rudimentary database.
Some of the attacks were among the huge files of documents being scoured by the team from Scotland Yard, but the intruder had previously been ruled out as a suspect. The break-ins – all involving British children - did not involve abductions, were at different resorts and at different times to the disappearance of the little girl during a family holiday.
However, the suspected paedophile attacks grew in significance after three British families came forward following a new appeal by detectives last year and officers believe there could be more involving families from other countries.
The intruder was described as speaking English with a foreign accent, sometimes slurring his words and remaining calm even when he was disturbed by parents of the children. Unlike the McCann case, the parents were always present when the man came into the house.
Police said that only the “method” linked the 12 cases. They said they would able to eliminate anybody who came forward in the most serious assault suggesting that DNA was found.
Police yesterday also released an image of a distinctive burgundy-red long-sleeved T-shirt which two of the families described the intruder as wearing. One said it had a white circle on the back.
Detective Chief Inspector Andy Redwood said tracing the man was one of the priorities of his investigation. "This is an offender who has got a very, very unhealthy interest in young, white, female children who he is attacking whilst they are on holiday in their beds," he said.
"While I completely accept that there are differences (between the break-ins and the McCann case), there is no abduction that we can see, but the assumption from that is that Madeleine McCann has been abducted.
“That may not necessarily follow with all our thinking about what may have become of Madeleine McCann. It is really critical for us to identify this offender and prove or disprove whether he was involved in Madeleine's disappearance."
Mr Redwood said that if names are put forward, his team will be able to eliminate suspects from their inquiry, suggesting that police have DNA on file.
His team currently have 38 people classed as "persons of interest" to the inquiry, he said, and are also sifting through details of 530 known sex offenders whose whereabouts they cannot account for.
Of those 59 are classed as high priority, and some of those are British.