ALEX Batty should have been found five months ago alongside his still-missing "kidnapper" mother – but French police were on strike and apparently failed to act, it has emerged today.
The extraordinary revelations came on Thursday after 17-year-old Brit returned home to Oldham, Greater Manchester, six years after being allegedly abducted.
His mother and alleged kidnapper, 48-year-old Melanie Batty, remains on the run, however.
She is said to have forced him to live in an itinerant "spiritual community" instead of returning to his legal guardian, who is his grandmother, Susan Caruana, 68.
Now it has emerged that Alex and a woman turned up at prestigious IT college in Perpignan, in the South of France, last July.
Teachers at Ecole 42 (School 42) were impressed by his online application, which included passing a computer exam "with flying colours".
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But there were concerned by his profile, especially as he was using fake personal details.
"He gave his name as Zack Edwards," said Marie Payré, the administrative manager of Ecole 42.
"He told us by email that an airline had lost his identity papers."
When Alex arrived in Perpignan, "we started to have a clue about what was going on," Ms Payré told the France Bleu radio station.
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This was when Alex allegedly said: "Zack Edwards is just a nickname, my real name is Alex Batty."
Géro Vigney, the director of Ecole 42, then realised that his potential student was a wanted child, and his mother was on the run.
Mr Vigney handed over all details to the police, including the address where Alex "was staying with the woman who accompanied him."
"It didn't happen like in the movies," said Mr Vigney.
"When I arrived at the police station, it was in the middle of a national police strike, so I was asked to come back at 3pm.
"I think everyone found themselves faced with a situation they were not supposed to be in, but it annoyed me a little because we are still talking about a minor who has been missing for six years!"
A police chief then reportedly finally took Mr Vigney’s statement by phone, with Mr Vigney saying: "I gave him all the information, even the address of the lodge where he was staying with the woman who had accompanied him.
"I was told that the investigation was underway and that we would be kept informed, but since July, we never heard any news."
International police agency Interpol was involved in the increasingly complicated case since Alex went missing in 2017 during a holiday to Spain.
He was with his mother at the time, as well as his paternal grandfather, David Batty, who would now be 64.
There are claims that Mr Batty died six months ago, but even that theory has now been called into question.
No record of Mr Batty’s death has been filed, and neighbours in the hamlet of La Bastide, near Carcassonne, where they once lived, said they saw him looking fit and well within the last two weeks.
Greater Manchester police flew to south west France to collect Alex, who turned himself into gendarmes last Wednesday after a delivery driver picked him up on the side of a rural road.
But for diplomatic reasons could not assist the French in looking for Mr and Ms Batty.
A French source said: "The British are now leading the investigation, and they of course will be interviewing Alex at length.
"His mother is crucial to the enquiry, and she needs to be found."
The search area in France alone is a huge swathe of Pyrenean countryside that is allegedly popular with spiritual communities, sects, cults and hippies.
It is understood that the community the Battys joined never stayed anywhere for more than a two weeks before moving on, living off the land and whatever money they could pull together.
Contacted about the latest development in the case, Jean-David Cavaillé, the Perpignan public prosecutor, said: "The police officers reported to the duty prosecutor's office, and the facts were reported to the Quillan gendarmerie."
Quillan is close to where Alex was believed to be staying in France.
This comes months before another missed chance when Alex tried to enlist at a different school in November, but nobody worked out who he was and police took no action, French media claimed.
He told a delivery driver who found him walking along the side of a rural road in south west France: "I need a future."
But on Saturday French newspaper La Depeche reported that Alex in fact tried to "enrol in a school" in the town of Quillan last month.
He could not provide any identity papers, so teachers contacted police about the British teenager, who spoke little French.
"The gendarmes tried to contact the English authorities," said an investigating source, but "there was a hiccup which did not allow the report to be followed up".
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They added: "Collaboration [between the French and the British] did not make it possible to establish a link between the presence of Alex Batty in Quillan and his disappearance notice issued seven years earlier in England."
The slip-up shows how far away combined police forces working through the international crime agency Interpol were from finding the vulnerable boy.
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