By CASSANDRA VINOGRAD
LONDON (AP) - British police investigating the disappearance of Madeleine McCann said Wednesday they are seeking an intruder who sexually assaulted five girls in the region of southern Portugal where the British toddler was last seen.
Police have linked 12 crimes between 2004 and 2010, in which a man entered holiday villas occupied by British families in Portugal's Algarve region. In several of those cases, the man sexually assaulted young girls.
Det. Chief Insp. Andy Redwood acknowledged there were differences between the characteristics of the 12 incidents and the McCann case - such as time of day and the fact that there were no abductions - but stressed the need to identify the intruder.
"This is an offender who has got a very, very unhealthy interest in young, white, female children who he is attacking whilst they are on holiday in their beds," Redwood said. "We really need to identify the offender, to bring to a close the trauma and the tragedy that these families have suffered, and then seek to establish whether this is connected to Madeleine's disappearance."
British police haven't released a composite sketch of the suspect.
Portuguese police made no comment. Cases that are under investigation in Portugal are covered by a judicial secrecy law, which forbids the release of information.
Madeleine was nearly 4 years old when she disappeared in May 2007 from her family's resort apartment in Praia da Luz on Portugal's south coast while her parents and their friends dined nearby.
Portuguese police failed to find the missing girl or a culprit, but reopened the case last year.
British detectives are conducting their own investigation and have been sifting through case files in Portugal and pursuing several avenues of investigation.
Madeleine's disappearance sparked global interest as pictures of her and her grieving parents beamed around the world. Her parents briefly met with Pope Benedict XVI in St. Peter's Square in June 2007, a month after Madeleine disappeared, and the pontiff held a picture of their daughter.