French police hunt for at least two gunmen after Alps murders
LONDON: Two or more killers were last night being hunted over the murders of a family in the French Alps, as police continued to probe the dead father's relationship with a brother and his work with a defence-satellite technology company.
While French authorities continued to insist they could not say if the killings had been the result of a professional hit, they confirmed each murder victim had received at least three bullets, including two shots to the head, a technique seen as a signature of assassination.
One investigator said: ''We know the number of weapons that were used and the kinds that were used. Examination of the grooves on the cartridges and of the system for firing the bullet shows there was more than one killer.''
Assassination signatures ... officers examine the al-Hilli home in Claygate, Surrey. Photo: AP
The seven-year-old daughter of the family, Zainab, was reported to be out of danger following operations to repair a fractured skull. Police said it was not yet known how she had been bludgeoned. There has been speculation she was pistol-whipped. Eric Maillaud, the chief prosecutor overseeing the investigation, said of speculation that Zainab might have been tortured to force her parents to reveal something: ''This is not the main hypothesis.''
Last Wednesday, British-based aeronautics engineer Saad al-Hilli, 50, his wife, Iqbal, 47, their two daughters and a 77-year-old woman thought to be Iqbal's mother were on holidays in the Alps near Lake Annecy when they were attacked by gunmen.
A cyclist, Sylvain Mollier, 45, is believed to have been passing on the same road but apparently became a witness and was also murdered. He took seven bullets.
Local mothers bring flowers to lay outside the house. Photo: AFP
The younger daughter, four-year-old Zeena, was found crouching under her mother's legs eight hours after the bodies were discovered in a BMW near the village of Chevaline.
The Mail on Sunday reported that Mr al-Hilli was working on a secret contract for one of Europe's biggest defence companies, Surrey Satellites Technology. The newspaper said he was part of a team involved in an undisclosed project linked to European Aeronautic Defence and Space, a company that has contracts with Russia, China and the Foreign Office. Its clients include NASA, the European Space Agency and the British Ministry of Defence contractor Thales.
Claude Moniquet, the director of the Brussels-based European Strategic Intelligence and Security Centre, said: ''Mr al-Hilli's company was also a renowned leader in satellite mapping, and if it was secretly doing this in countries which would not welcome such an intrusion, then we have a possible motive.'' He also suggested Middle-Eastern groups might have pressured the Iraqi-born Mr al-Hilli for access to technology and killed him for refusing.
Meanwhile Mr al-Hilli's brother Zaid, who had previously issued a legal caveat to delay the settling of his father's will, denied a family feud.
A cousin who lives in Australia, Ali al-Hilli, told London's Telegraph that Zaid was in tears when he spoke to him on the telephone after the killings. ''He kept saying, 'Why? Why? Why? How did this happen? … He was clearly devastated. He wasn't coping.'' Ali al-Hilli said he knew of no disagreement over money. He said Zaid al-Hilli was innocent and intended to care for the girls.
Mr al-Hilli, from Melbourne, told The Age he had not spoken to any relatives based overseas since speaking to Zaid shortly after the murders.
He said the family had to be patient while police investigated.
‘‘At the moment the investigators are leading the way and we’ll leave it to the experts,’’ he said.
‘‘We’re in deep shock. It’s a real tragedy.’’
Mr al-Hilli said he stood by his support for his cousin Zaid but did not wish to comment further while the police investigation continued.
Police continued a detailed search of the al-Hillis' home in Claygate, Surrey, while French police widened their search to Italy and Switzerland, with Mr Maillaud saying it was possible the killers had fled across borders that were only 90 minutes away.
Mr Maillaud said Zeena would soon re-join relatives who had travelled to France to take her home. Zainab, a ''key witness'', was still in hospital in an induced coma, he said.
A former head of Scotland Yard's Flying Squad, John O'Connor, told The Independent he believed the murders were probably the result of a state-sponsored assassination.
with Nino Bucci