THE search for a man missing for more than three years took a new twist this week when police teams searched areas near his former home.

Specialist teams, including dog units and experts from other force areas, scoured a number of sites surrounding the village of Sacriston, near Chester-le-Street, in a bid to solve the mysterious disappearance of former miner Edward Donnelly.

In March 2002, Mr Donnelly, then 53, vanished from the home he shared with his sister, Frances, in Fynway and has never been seen since.

The mystery deepened earlier this year when detectives arrested 49-year-old John Robert Pounder on suspicion of perverting the course of justice and searched his home in Elm Court.

Less than a month later, Mr Pounder was found dead at his home. Although an inquest is yet to determine the cause of his death, there are not thought to be any suspicious circumstances.

Now the officer leading the inquiry has admitted that it looks increasingly unlikely that Mr Donnelly will be found alive.

Det Chief Insp Jeff Watson said: "After this length of time, hopes of finding him alive are waning.

"However, we are doing our utmost to discover what has become of him and to bring the investigation to a conclusion."

This week police combed a number of sites that have not previously been searched - sites that were identified by senior officers following extensive inquiries in Sacriston earlier this year.

The sites included a number of abandoned mine workings, among them a location three miles away from Sacriston near the village of Plawsworth, close to where Mr Donnelly was last seen alive.

Det Chief Insp Watson added: "We are determined to solve the mystery of Mr Donnelly's disappearance and would appeal to anyone with information which might help our inquiry to come forward."

Mr Donnelly is 5ft 8in, with a pale complexion and light mousey brown hair, last seen cut in a short-back-and-sides style.

He was last seen wearing a dark green, hooded waxed jacket, black jeans and black Umbro training shoes. Anyone with information about his whereabouts is asked to contact the police on 0845 606 0365 or Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.