Greece blonde girl: Thousands respond to 'Maria' appeal

The Roma community where the girl lived has rallied around the couple, as Mark Lowen reports

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More than 8,000 calls have been made to a Greek charity after an appeal to discover the identity of a young blonde girl found living on a Roma settlement.

DNA tests revealed the child, known as Maria and aged about four, was not related to the couple she lived with.

A woman aged 40 and 39-year-old man are to appear before judges on Monday on charges of abducting a minor and of holding false papers.

The Roma community where the girl was found has rallied around them.

The head of the Roma association in Farsala in central Greece says the couple treated her better than their biological children and that she loved them.

The brother of the man claiming to be Maria's father repeated the defence that she had been given to them lawfully after her birth, says the BBC's Mark Lowen in Athens.

But the couple are suspected by social workers of kidnapping the girl and sending her out to beg, or involving her in a sex ring.

Poster of Maria in Athens office of Smile of the Child charity (19 Oct 2013) An appeal has been launched throughout Europe

Police initially raided the Roma camp to search for drugs and weapons.

They noticed the lack of resemblance between the blonde-haired, green-eyed, pale-skinned little girl and her parents, and found further discrepancies when they investigated the family's documents.

The couple had registered different numbers of children with different regional family registries.

The woman claimed to have given birth to six children within a 10-month period.

When questioned about how they came to have Maria, the couple gave "constantly changing claims," Thessalia Province Police Director Vassilis Halatsis said.

Through Interpol, Greece has requested assistance from other European countries.

Police decided to appeal internationally as the girl looked as if she might be from northern or eastern Europe.

The case has also brought a response from two families in the UK with long-missing children.

Ben Needham from Sheffield disappeared aged 21 months while on a family holiday on the Greek island of Kos in 1991. His sister said the discovery of the blonde-haired girl in central Greece gave them "great hope".

A spokesman for Kate and Gerry McCann, whose three-year-old daughter Madeleine went missing in Portugal in 2007, said the case also gave them hope that she would one day be found alive.

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