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Missing british girl excites debates around world

The disappearance of 4-year-old Madeleine McCann, the British girl who vanished from her hotel room in southern Portugal while her parents dined just 50 meters (yards) away, has excited debate around the world.

Were her parents negligent to leave her and her two younger siblings alone, even for a brief time? Or should they have been able to expect a certain level of safety in this family-friendly resort town?

The questions raised cut right to the heart of a universal vulnerability that terrifies parents everywhere. Yet answers differ widely - revealing cultural differences within Europe and across the Atlantic.

In Portugal and much of the rest of southern Europe, where parents often take their young children along with them to smoky bars, many have accused the McCanns of neglect, despite the fact they were at a poolside restaurant just seconds away from the room and say they went back to check on their sleeping children every half hour. The resort did offer babysitting services, but the McCanns apparently chose not to use them that evening.

"You shouldn't leave (young children) alone," said Francisco Vieira, a 77-year-old father of two grown children who works as a parking lot attendant near the beach in Praia da Luz.

He said an abduction is "not the kind of thing you'd expect here, but you still shouldn't risk it. We never left our children alone. We'd either take them with us or one of us would stay behind."

Many Portuguese travelers express distaste over British attitudes toward children, particularly notices in some British pubs that make clear that dogs and children are not welcome.

British parents, and many of their American counterparts, object to the second-hand smoke and loud music to which kids are subjected on nights out in Spain and Portugal.

Culture clashes have emerged as a theme in child dramas in the past.

In 1997, a toddler was left in a stroller outside a New York restaurant while her mother dined and drank inside, prompting diners to phone police and complain.

After being arrested for neglect, the mother claimed the practice was common in her native Denmark and sued the city for false arrest. The charges were dropped and she was eventually awarded US$66,401.

Six years later, a Swiss father was arrested on charges of child endangerment after a maid discovered his 2-month-old in the family's Waldorf-Astoria hotel room while he and his wife were out to lunch.

"We are nice people and good parents. It's just a matter of a different culture," the wife told The New York Post, calling it a simple mistake. Here, too, charges were eventually dismissed.

Even mild criticism of the McCanns, both doctors from central England, has caused outrage in Britain, where the nation has rallied around the family and the case has become a media phenomenon, drowning out news coverage of Gordon Brown's likely selection as the new prime minister.

Images of the blond little girl are ubiquitous on TV and in print, and the issue dominated radio and TV shows for two weeks until the decision not to send Prince Harry to Iraq briefly eclipsed the McCann saga.

Celebrities such as J.K. Rowling and Richard Branson have pledged large chunks of money to a reward fund that currently tops 2.5 million pounds (US$4.9 million; 3.6 million EUR).

The British tabloids, which have sent packs of newshounds to Praia da Luz, have responded to Portuguese criticism of the family by taking aim at the local police, complaining about lack of information and perceived lack of progress in the case.

They have taken to calling the police chief "hapless" and accused other officers of being asleep on the job.

Friends of the McCanns have described them as doting, overprotective parents, insisting there is no way they could have imagined their child would be snatched from the resort compound while they sat so nearby.

Portuguese police have questioned the parents extensively as witnesses, but have never named them as suspects in any crime.

Jon Clarke, 34, a physics teacher in London, said parents in Britain are not encouraged to take their children to restaurants, and that he would consider leaving his own 3-year-old alone if it was in a safe place where he could easily check up on her.

"If you take children to a restaurant in Britain, it's more often the attitude that the children shouldn't be there, whereas in Spain, Italy, France, they're more welcoming," he said.

In Spain, which is famously child-friendly, what the McCanns did is all but unheard of. Spanish parents take their kids everywhere, and it is common to see small children running around a town square while their parents have drinks well into the night.

"People just say, 'Oh well, they'll sleep late tomorrow,"' said Ines Alberdi, a professor of sociology and family issues specialist at Complutense University in Madrid.

Spaniards, she said, "do not totally separate children's entertainment from parents' entertainment. I think that is a very strong tradition here."

Magda Carlan, a 37-year-old Portuguese housewife with daughters aged 2 and 4, reflected this view as she blamed the McCann parents for their own nightmare. "Children should never be left alone. It is wrong. When I go on vacation with small girls I am very careful."

Madeleine disappeared on May 3. Robert Murat, a 33-year-old British man who lives near the hotel, has acknowledged that police are questioning him as the only suspect in the case, though he vehemently denies any wrongdoing. Police have released him for lack of evidence, but say he remains a suspect.

The media frenzy has whipped up a certain hysteria among many parents in Britain, resulting in a surge in interest in electronic tracking devices that could potentially help police find missing children.

Richard Howells, a professor of cultural and creative industries at King's College in London, said the case has touched a nerve in Britain because it is so easy to identify with the family.

Many Britons vacation in the Algarve region of Portugal, where Praia da Luz is located, drawn by its reputation as an affordable family holiday destination.

"You can project yourself in that situation and you can feel how they're feeling, how terrible it is," he said. "Even though you don't personally know them, you feel through the media that you can."

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