Developing

Maria: Roma Couple Charged With Abduction

A Roma couple have been formally charged with abducting a mystery blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl in Greece.

The pair, named in local papers as Hristos Salis, 39, and Eleftheria Dimopoulou, 40, were escorted into the back of a courthouse in Larissa from a police van.

Their friends and family waited at the front of the building with reporters and TV satellite crews as a dozen police officers stood guard. No media were allowed into the court.

The couple told the investigative magistrate the girl's biological mother gave the little girl to them as a baby because she could not look after her.

They deny charges of abduction and procuring false documents relating to the girl's birth certificate.

One of their lawyers, Constantinos Katsavos, told reporters outside court: "It was an adoption that was not exactly legal, but took place with the mother's consent."

The court will decide whether the pair will be kept in custody pending trial or released on bail.

The mystery girl, known as Maria, was discovered living in a Roma camp near the Greek town of Farsala on Wednesday after a raid by police who were looking for drugs and weapons.

British police say there is no link between her case and that of missing boy Ben Needham , who was 21 months old when he vanished on the Greek island of Kos in 1991.

A prosecutor who accompanied the police on the raid thought it odd that Maria did not look like her darker-skinned "parents".

DNA tests later confirmed the couple are not her biological parents.

The pair claim they were given the child by a Bulgarian woman who was unable to look after her, two weeks after she was born on January 31, 2009.

Greek authorities have put out a worldwide appeal to help identify the youngster and find her real family.

Maria, who utters just a few words in Greek and Roma dialect, is being cared for in Athens by the Greek charity Smile Of The Child and is said to be "doing well".

Charity spokesman Panagiotis Pardalis told Sky News that Maria is still in hospital and waiting for medical examinations to be completed.

"She is talking to hospital staff and seems happy, and is playing with staff and showing normal child behaviour," he said.

The Roma couple claim Maria is four years old, although medical and dental tests have confirmed she is a year or two older than that.

The little girl, dubbed the "blonde angel" by Greek media, will be transferred to one of the charity's homes when she leaves hospital.

The charity has been inundated with more than 8,000 calls about the girl from around the world, including from people in the US, Scandinavia, Australia and South Africa.

Some of the calls had specific details and have been forwarded to police.

Neighbours in Farsala's ramshackle Roma camp said Maria's real father had come to look for her soon after she was taken away by police.

Babis Dimitriou, chairman of the local Roma community, told The Daily Telegraph: "There was a Bulgarian husband and wife who were working around Greece in temporary jobs, who used to stay here sometimes.

"At one point they left the girl to be raised by the family here in the village.

"The family raised the child as if it was their own, although her father would come back every now and then to see her. The last time he visited was only five days ago, after the arrests had been made.

"All the other Roma here were telling the Bulgarian man to explain to the police that the girl was his, but he has now disappeared."

His account was backed by other residents, the paper reported.

The Roma community in Farsala is said to be anxious about the worldwide media attention the case is attracting.

In a country already devastated by economic crisis, the Roma in the camp make a living selling fruit, carpets, blankets, baskets and shoes at local markets.

They are already considered by some to be social outcasts, thieves and beggars, and they are now worried they will be stigmatised as kidnappers and child traffickers.