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Police eye sex assault cases in Madeleine McCann probe

Three-year-old British girl Madeleine McCann in March 2007, two months before she disappeared in Portugal AP Photo/McCann Family

British authorities say they have identified a possible link between the 2007 disappearance of 3-year-old British girl Madeleine McCann, and a series of twelve incidents between 2004 and 2010 in which a male intruder gained access to residences - primarily holiday villas occupied by families from the U.K. in the Western Algarve section of Portugal, the same area where Madeleine went missing.

WATCH: 48 Hours: "Where's Maddie?"

The Metropolitan Police in London say that in four different incidents between 2004 and 2006, a man sexually assaulted 5 white girls, between the ages of 7 and 10, while they were in their beds. On one of those occasions, the man sexually assaulted two girls in the same residence, police say.

Authorities say there are many similarities between the incidents. In most cases, there were no signs of forced entry to the property, nothing was taken, and the intruder appeared in the early hours of the morning, police say.

Madeleine vanished shortly before her fourth birthday during a family vacation in southern Portugal in May 2007. The child's parents had left her alone in a resort in Praia da Luz, a coastal town 120 miles south of Lisbon in the Western Algarve, while they went out to dinner nearby with friends.

Authorities say out of the twelve offenses possibly tied to Madeleine's disappearance, two of them occurred in Praia da Luz.

Police are asking the public's help in identifying a man wanted for questioning in connection with these cases and the disappearance of Madeleine. The man, who spoke in English with a foreign accent, is described as having tanned skin with short, dark unkempt hair. Three victims described him as having a noticeable odor and some said he had a pot belly.

"We need to establish the identity of this man," Deputy Chief Investigator Andy Redwood, who is leading the investigation in England, said Wednesday. And he said, "We also need to eliminate this man from our enquiries and ascertain whether these offenses are linked to Madeleine's disappearance."

Redwood asked anyone who has been a victim of a similar crime to come forward, even if the incident has been reported to police in Portugal or elsewhere previously.

"Please do not assume we have been made aware of it," he said.

Redwood also said authorities are still working to identify a man who was seen by three witnesses carrying a child fitting Madeleine's description on the night she disappeared. That man is described as being white, of medium-build, in his 30s, with short brown hair and a clean shaven face.

Portuguese police said they closed the investigation into Madeleine's disappearance in 2008 because authorities had detected no crime. The case sparked global interest when pictures of Madeleine and her parents were beamed around the world. They were briefly considered suspects before they were cleared and returned home to England.

In late October 2013, Portuguese prosecutors ordered police to reopen their investigation into the child's disappearance, saying a review of the evidence found new leads.

The Portuguese investigation has run parallel with British police efforts to find out what happened to the girl. British police launched Operation Grange in 2011 to try to solve the case. British detectives have said it's possible that Madeleine is still alive.

A $33,000 reward in the case still stands.


  • Stephanie Slifer On Twitter»

    Stephanie Slifer covers crime and justice for CBSNews.com.

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