MADRID, Spain – Spanish police said Thursday they had arrested an Italian man and Portuguese woman who tried to extort money from the parents of Madeleine McCann, offering them information about their missing 4-year-old daughter.
Police said in a statement the two in custody were suspected of trying to swindle the McCanns, who have launched a Europe-wide search for their daughter after she disappeared two months ago during a family vacation in Portugal.
The investigation was still ongoing, however, and the two suspects were being held in Spanish custody, the statement said.
"Police began to investigate them after getting information that they had tried to contact Madeleine's parents to collect a reward," the statement said.
Spanish authorities told Italian diplomats in Spain the man had no connection with the girl's disappearance, according to Italian Foreign Ministry officials who spoke on customary condition of anonymity and declined to elaborate.
The Italian man was arrested on an international warrant — issued from France, where he was wanted for alleged association with a crime group — the statement said. He had served an 18-month sentence in France for child mistreatment, specifically his daughter, it said. A Spanish police spokeswoman had said the warrant itself had nothing to do with the McCann case.
The Portuguese woman was detained due to her association with the Italian man, and there was no warrant for her arrest, the spokeswoman said.
Both the man and woman were arrested Thursday morning in Sotogrande, a town in the southern Spanish province of Cadiz, the spokeswoman said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with police rules.
Two Portuguese detectives took part in the arrests, police in Lisbon said.
"We thought they might be involved in the Madeleine case. It is a possibility, but we have found no concrete evidence yet," Portuguese police inspector Olegario Sousa told The Associated Press by telephone, declining to provide further details.
Members of the McCann family in Britain said they were withholding comment until more information was known.
"We have no comment to make, because we know no more than we have seen on the news," said John McCann, brother of Madeleine's father, Gerry.
Madeleine's great uncle, Brian Kennedy, said he did not know any details about the man's detention. "We are trying not to get our hopes up too much because they so frequently get dashed," he told Sky News.
Madeleine disappeared on May 3 after her parents left her and her brother and sister, 2-year-old twins, alone in their room while they went to a restaurant inside their hotel complex in Praia da Luz, a tiny resort town in Portugal's Algarve region.
Police have identified just one suspect in the case, but made no arrests before Thursday.
A month ago, Portuguese police said they were searching for a suspect — a white man between 35 and 40 years old — in connection with the girl's disappearance. They said the suspect had been wearing a dark jacket and beige trousers on the day the girl disappeared, and was spotted possibly carrying the girl near to where she had vanished.
Police have received countless tip-offs in the last two months, and the girl's parents have launched an international campaign to find her, enlisting the aid of celebrities such as soccer star David Beckham and J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books.