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LONDON — The expected arrests in the disappearance of Madeleine McCann that British media are calling imminent are being "overplayed," a former police detective with extensive experience of high-profile investigations has told USA TODAY.

"This isn't a major breakthrough. This is a significant piece of information about three individuals who need to be eliminated (from police investigations)," Mark Williams Thomas, who has won awards for his investigative reporting, said Tuesday.

"Burglars don't abduct children," Thomas said. "Child abusers abduct, pedophiles abduct, but if you are in an area burglarizing a house looking for items you are not looking to take a child. In terms of who these individuals are, they are likely to be questioned about what they may have seen as witnesses," he said.

"I doubt very much they will be viewed as suspects," Thomas said. "To call them 'suspects' at this point is overplaying it by far."

Late Monday, several media outlets in the United Kingdom, including the Guardian and Daily Mirror, citing an unidentified spokesman for Kate and Gerry McCann — Madeleine's parents — reported that police in Portugal were ready to arrest and interview "key suspects" connected to alleged robberies in the area where the then 3-year-old Madeleine was taken in the case that has captivated global attention for years.

British investigators, who last year re-launched their own investigation into Madeleine's 2007 disappearance from a resort in Portugal, confirmed Monday they sent a letter of request to Portuguese authorities but would not elaborate on its contents.

Separately, the McCanns' spokesman, speaking to the Guardian, said the latest developments were significant. "It means they have the intention of arresting and interviewing X, Y or Z. We don't know who they have their sights on but it's likely it is the burglars," the spokesman told the British news site.

Two of the burglaries took place in April 2007 in the apartment block where the McCann family was staying, ABC reported from London. In both of the April burglaries, entry was gained via a window. One theory is that Madeleine was also abducted after access to the family's vacation rental was gained through a window.

However, Thomas, who as a police officer specialized in child protection cases, said Tuesday, "These individuals may have information but as far as a breakthrough? No." More importantly, he said, they need to be ruled out.

"What happens now is very much down to what the authorities in Portugal decide to do next," he said.

Contributing: William M. Welch

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