Portuguese police may begin digging in search of the body of Madeleine McCann Thursday after a letter apparently giving details of where she will be found was sent to a Dutch newspaper.

The parents of the missing four-year-old girl were told about the letter yesterday. It was similar to one sent to the same newspaper last year, which predicted where the bodies of two missing Belgian girls would be found.

Police in the Netherlands said that they were treating the claim seriously because of the similarities with the letter that predicted where officers would find the bodies of Stacy Lemmens, 7, and Nathalie Mahy, 10, in June last year.

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The letter said that Madeleine, who disappeared 42 days ago from the family’s holiday apartment in Praia da Luz, was buried beside a dirt track that runs though scrubland close to a town called Odiaxere in the Algarve. It said Madeleine’s body would be found “north of the road under branches and rocks, six to seven meters off the road”.

Two maps of the Algarvewere were included, marked by a cross and two question marks and a handwritten note.

Last night, several plain-clothed police officers arrived at Arão, a small village nine miles from Praia da Luz, where they spent an hour and 20 minutes looking at fields and the surrounding area.

The McCann family and police in Britain and Portugal have received hundreds of letters from hoaxers and people claiming to have psychic powers who say they know what happened to Madeleine.

A spokesman for Mr and Mrs McCann from Rothley, Leicestershire, said: “Kate was distressed by the whole thing, as you can imagine.”

The two-paragraph, handwritten letter in Dutch was sent to De Telegraaf, a newspaper based in Amsterdam. Dutch police handed it to Portuguese officers yesterday.