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Parents of missing tot desire to leave Portugal, father says

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PRAIA DA LUZ, Portugal — The father of a 4-year-old British girl who disappeared in Portugal said he and his wife were desperate to go home but did not want to be perceived as running from justice since being named suspects in the case.

Kate and Gerry McCann have strenuously professed their innocence since police declared them formal suspects Friday following hours of grueling interrogation.

"We thought we were in our worst nightmare, but now it just keeps getting worse and worse," Gerry McCann was quoted as saying in an interview with the Sunday newspaper The News of the World.

He said he was concerned their treatment indicates Portuguese police were under intense pressure to solve the case, the Sunday newspaper reported.

He said the couple was negotiating with police on whether they could return to Britain after the lease on the villa they are renting in Portugal runs out next week.

"I don't know if they will agree, but we're desperate to get back for the kids' sake and emotional reasons," he was quoted as saying. "It's not that we're running away."

Gerry McCann's sister Philomena said her brother and his family had planned to return home on Monday.

"They are still hoping to come home on Monday, but Gerry is saying he doesn't want it to look like they are running scared," she told the Scottish Press Association after speaking to her brother by phone.

The McCanns' Portuguese lawyer, Carlos Pinto Abreu, said after the separate interrogations ended late Friday that police had not imposed any restrictions on them, "meaning they have total freedom of movement."

However, after reviewing their statements authorities could decide to bring charges against them in the May 3 disappearance of their daughter Madeleine from the family's hotel room in southern Portugal's Algarve region.

Neither the police nor the McCanns were available for further comment Saturday. Their spokeswoman, Justine McGuinness, said the couple had canceled plans to attend a local church service Saturday evening because the huge media interest could unsettle the local community.

A family friend, Clarence Mitchell, said Gerry McCann told him that he and his wife expected clarification of their legal status within 48 hours.

Mitchell said the McCanns, both doctors from central England, were considering hiring lawyers in Britain where they would also have support from family and friends.

"They are determined to prove this is a travesty ... and clear their names," Mitchell said of the police allegations about their possible involvement.

The couple's ordeal has drawn attention around the world, partly because of an unprecedented international campaign they led to find their daughter.

The police decision to name the parents as suspects brought a dramatic twist in the four-month-old case which had initially focused on an apparent abductor.

Until Friday, suspicion had centered on Robert Murat, a British man who lived near the hotel from which Madeleine disappeared, and who was the only formal suspect.

But police said new forensic tests done on evidence gathered months after the girl vanished found traces of blood in the couple's car, said Justine McGuinness, a spokeswoman for the family.

The traces of blood, apparently missed in earlier forensic tests, were uncovered by sniffer dogs brought from Britain.

Residents in the village of Praia da Luz, where Madeleine disappeared and where her parents have remained for the past four months, said they were bewildered by the developments in the case.

"I don't know what to believe any more," said Filomena Teixeira, a retired resident. "But it's not a matter of belief or disbelief, it's about what the evidence says."

Philomena, Gerry McCann's sister, said Friday that police had proposed a plea bargain to the McCann's lawyer, suggesting Madeleine might have been killed accidentally and offering the mother a limited sentence if she confessed.

The McCanns said they were dining with friends in a hotel restaurant when Madeleine vanished. Madeleine was in their hotel room with her twin 2-year-old siblings, and the parents said they returned frequently to check on them.

Since then, the McCanns have toured Europe with photos of Madeleine and the child's stuffed animals and clothing, even meeting with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican. Celebrities including children's author J.K. Rowling and soccer star David Beckham made public appeals that helped the family raise more than $2 million.