A massive air and land search that has involved hundreds of police, soldiers, rescue workers and volunteers has been called off four days after a two-and-a-half-year-old boy went missing from the small French village of Le Vernet.
The missing toddler, identified only as Émile, has still not been found, and the search for him across hectares of mountainous terrain in the French Alps has turned up no clues about the boy’s disappearance.
Instead of sending out more search parties, local prosecutor Rémy Avon said Wednesday that investigators will shift their focus to evaluating the evidence that has already been gathered.
Since Saturday evening when Émile was reported missing, more than 800 people have been involved in a coordinated search for the toddler to no avail. Before the search was officially called off, Avon noted the need for “a time of analysis” for investigators to comb through physical evidence, interviews with residents and the thousands of tips that have been called in.
The small town of Le Vernet, in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence prefecture, only has about 130 inhabitants and has been described as a place where “everyone knows everyone.” It is made up of two hamlets: Haut-Vernet and Bas-Vernet.
Émile was playing in the garden of his grandparents’ house in Haut-Vernet on Saturday around 6 p.m. local time when he vanished.
“The family was getting ready to leave the house to go on an outing. He took advantage of this fleeting moment (of inattention) to leave,” said François Balique, the mayor of Le Vernet. “His grandparents realized he was no longer there when they went to put him in the car.”
All 30 buildings that make up the Haut-Vernet hamlet have been searched by investigators, 25 residents were interviewed and 12 vehicles were searched, authorities said Tuesday. A guardrail was put up on the road leading to Haut-Vernet to stop vehicle traffic and visitors from entering the town while the investigation continues.
On Tuesday, Avon warned that “medically, beyond a period of 48 hours, given the child’s young age … and the current intense heat … his life is very much at risk,” AFP reported. The heat wave in the area has seen temperatures soar above 35 C in recent days.
Émile is described by national police as having blond hair and brown eyes and standing 90 centimetres tall. He was last seen wearing white shorts, a yellow shirt and hiking shoes.
Two witnesses told authorities on Sunday that they saw Émile walking on a downhill road not far from the family home shortly after he was reported missing.
“This is where we then lose track of him,” Avon said in a Sunday press conference.
There is so far no indication that Émile was kidnapped, though Avon said authorities are keeping all their options open.
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The rugged terrain around Le Vernet is popular with hikers for its rivers, ravines and steep paths, but makes for treacherous landscape for a toddler.
Balique said the boy’s family is known in the area, as they’ve spent numerous holidays there over decades. He said Émile comes from a family of hikers and walks “better than the average child of his age.”
Balique notes that the child may be able to cover a good distance on foot but “at two and a half, you get exhausted quickly, he must not have gone very far.”
Émile’s parents were not in Le Vernet when the boy went missing from his grandparents’ house, though a number of other family members were present at the time, Avon said. Émile’s parents live in La Bouilladisse, a small town located about 160 kilometres from Le Vernet.
Reports about a “trace of blood” found on the front of a car in the small town were dismissed by Avon, who said analysis showed it was animal blood, not human blood.
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