EU backs missing child alert system

By Ingrid Melander

LISBON - European ministers have backed an EU-wide alert system for missing children ahead of the bloc's first talks on the plan on Tuesday in Lisbon.

Justice and home affairs ministers from the European Union's 27 member countries meet in the Portuguese capital, five months after four-year-old Madeleine McCann went missing from a holiday resort in southern Portugal.

The European Commission and Portugal, which holds the rotating EU presidency, have asked ministers to consider a scheme like that in France, involving a media campaign and messages in public places such as stations.

Ministers showed support for the idea ahead of the talks.

"As borders are more and more permeable, we cannot know in case of a kidnapping if people will stay nearby," French Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie told Reuters.

"Having a European system is probably a good response to situations which are very dramatic, as they concern children."

But the European Commission said yesterday that all EU states had failed to implement a previous initiative - launching a European-wide helpline for missing children.

The EU executive had asked them earlier this year to all devote the same number - 116 000 - to the helpline.

"It could be of big use," said Friso Roscam Abbing, spokesman for EU Justice and Security Commissioner Franco Frattini, saying Frattini would urge EU states on Tuesday to reserve the numbers and use them. Portugal, Belgium and Greece had reserved the numbers but are not using them yet, he said.

British girl Madeleine's disappearance on May 3 triggered an international search and high-profile media campaign.

"Clearly we've had this very controversial case here in Portugal in recent weeks, and everything to do with missing children is always of great interest," Irish Justice Minister Brian Lenihan said, supporting the plan.

Portugal's justice minister, Alberto Costa, told reporters he hoped for general agreement on an alert system at the meeting but could not say when it was likely to be in place.

Costa stressed that current alert systems varied from one EU country to another and ministers needed to agree what they wanted to do together.

He denied the McCann case had prompted Portugal to propose the alert system, saying: "Not at all. There are many cases (of missing children) in the world".

Portuguese police have been criticised in Britain for their perceived slow initial response to the girl's disappearance.

Ernst Hirsch Ballin, Justice Minister of the Netherlands, one of 15 states forming Europe's borderless "Schengen" area, told Reuters he also supported the plan.

"The borders of the Netherlands are never closed, therefore we are interested in an alert system," he said.


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