Rome: The mother of missing six-year-old twins fought back tears on Wednesday as she made an emotional plea on Italian television, hours after prosecutors revealed that witnesses had seen the girls on board a ferry.
Irina Lucidi, whose estranged husband ran off with little Alessia and Livia on January 30 before throwing himself under a train, urged viewers to contact the police if they had any information that could bring an end to her ordeal.
News that the twins had been spotted on board a ferry bound for the French island of Corsica gave relatives new hope despite investigators playing down their chances.
"I appeal to whoever has seen them or knows something to contact the police," an emotional Irina Lucidi said on Rai 3`s primetime news bulletin.
The distraught mother said the sightings on the ferry which left the French port city of Marseille fed the belief that they could be safe from harm.
"The fact that all three were seen in Corsica on a ferry is of course a sign of hope that they may be somewhere in somebody`s care," she said.
"It is very important to have any type of indication, even if people are not 100 percent sure.”
"We hope that (their father) took them to Corsica to hand them to someone. We are holding on to that hope.... We will not give up," she added.
The TV appeal came hours after a similar plea on Facebook from the family which also expressed hope that the youngsters could yet be found alive despite a warning by relatives on Tuesday that they feared the worst.
"When the world says `give up,` hope whispers, `try it one more time`," the family said in a message posted on the Facebook page "Missing Alessia and Livia".
"We have to keep on going, and the chances are that we will stumble on something, perhaps when we are least expecting it."
A French prosecutor, Jacques Dallest, had earlier told a press conference in Marseille that three witnesses had come forward to say they had seen the twins on board the ferry with their father, Matthias Schepp, after he bought tickets for a crossing to Propriano in Corsica.
"We know since yesterday (Tuesday) from passengers on the boat between Marseille and Propriano that he was with the little girls," said Dallest.
Investigators had been unable to determine if the children had taken the overnight ferry which left Marseille on Monday last week after a witness reported seeing the father buying a ticket earlier the same day.
However, a woman in a neighbouring cabin on the ferry "explained that she heard children crying in the evening and that shortly afterwards, she saw the little girls and was able to formally identify one”, Dallest said.
The prosecutor said the woman had later seen "the little girls in the play room of the boat".
Dallest said investigators had drawn a blank on the girls` whereabouts after the crossing and were increasingly pessimistic about the chances of finding them alive.
"Unfortunately the worst scenario appears likely even if anything is possible and we have not found any children`s bodies at the time of speaking," he said.
Irina Lucidi`s family admitted on Tuesday to fearing the worst after they received EUR 4,400 from the father, sent by post shortly before he threw himself under a train in Italy`s Puglia region.
"It worries us because the theory that he might have paid someone to keep the children doesn`t hold any more," the uncle, Valerio Lucidi, said as the family retreated behind closed doors in their home near Lake Geneva.
Police also said the posting of the money cast doubt on the theory that he had paid someone to look after the children.
The couple, reportedly both employees of tobacco giant Philip Morris, were in the midst of a tense separation and had shared custody of the children prior to Schepp`s unexplained dash by car from Switzerland to Italy, through Marseille, which the uncle described as "complete madness".
Prior to the ferry sightings, the last confirmed trace of the fair-haired twins, who were wearing colourful clothing and distinctive spectacles, dates back to the day they disappeared, January 30, according to investigators.