The parents of Madeleine McCann have denied that they held a secret meeting with the seven friends who dined with them on the night of their daughter’s disappearance to “get their stories straight."

Kate and Gerry McCann were reunited with the friends two weeks ago for the first time since Madeleine was reported missing at a Portuguese holiday resort on May 3.

The meeting comes just weeks before the McCanns, from Rothley, Leicestershire, and their friends are expected to be interviewed by police over apparent inconsistencies in their witness statements. The group, known as the Tapas Nine, discussed events at Praia da Luz and what will happen next in the investigations. The McCanns, both 39, hope that they will soon be cleared as official suspects.

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Clarence Mitchell, spokesman for the McCanns, denied that the meeting was held for the friends to compare their accounts of events at the Ocean Club resort.

“It is the first time the nine have sat down face to face. It was really just a get-together to discuss where they are at,” he said. "This was in no way to get their stories straight. This is the age of e-mail and phone. They could have done that a long time ago.”

The couple’s advisers were present at the meeting, in a hotel in Rothley.

Portuguese detectives and a public prosecutor are reported to be finalising a series of formal letters asking for some of the McCann group to be reinterviewed in Britain.

One of the friends has reported seeing a man carrying a small child away from the McCanns’ apartment at about the time Madeleine is believed to have been abducted, six days before her fourth birthday. Three of the friends have given statements claiming to have seen Robert Murat, the only other official suspect, outside the apartment, though he said that he spent the evening at home with his mother.

The friends are Russell O’Brien, 36, a consultant in acute medicine in Exe-ter, and his partner Jane Tanner, 37; David Payne, 41, a fellow in cardiovascular sciences at University of Leicester, and his wife Fiona, 34, also a doctor; Matthew Oldfield, 37, an endocrinologist in Kingston, Surrey, and his wife Rachael, 36, a recruitment consultant; and Payne’s mother, Dianne Webster.

“[The meeting] was a show of solidarity under police claims that one or two had wanted to change their stories,” a source close to the couple said. “That is just not the case and the meeting showed that.”

Meanwhile, a former Portuguese police chief said that the McCanns should have been arrested as soon as their daughter disappeared for abandoning their children.

Paulo Pereira Cristóvão, who left the PolÍcia Judiciária this year to head the Portuguese Association for Missing Children, told the 24 Horas newspaper: “When the parents told police that they went to dinner and left the children at home alone, they confessed to the crime of abandonment. The penalty of abandonment is at least three years’ imprisonment.”