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Alps murders: Police 'to issue portrait of suspect'

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Alps murders: Police 'to issue portrait of suspect'
The scene where three members of the Al-Hilli family were shot along with French cyclist Sylvain Mollier. Photo:AFP
13:56 CEST+02:00
French police investigating the murders of a British Iraqi family in the French Alps last year are set to release a portrait image of a motorcyclist seen by several witnesses near the scene of the crime. The move comes after a BBC investigation concluded the killer had an accomplice.

According to reports in the French press on Tuesday, the Annecy prosecutor Eric Maillaud has finally decided to release the portrait of the suspect, after having it in his possession for over a year. 

In September 2012, Saad al-Hilli was mysteriously gunned down along with his wife and her mother in their car, which had parked by the side of a mountain road near the village of Chevaline. French cyclist Sylvain Mollier was also killed at the scene.

Saad al-Hilli's two young daughters Zeena, aged 4 and Zainab, aged 7, were with the family in the car. Zainab was left fighting for her life after being shot in the shoulder and bludgeoned over the head with a gun as she tried to escape. Her sister Zeena, managed to hide from the killer underneath her mother's skirt in the back of the car. 

Several witnesses told French police they reported seeing a motorcyclist near the scene at around the time the crime was committed.

In the days after the murder the witnesses had helped police put together an identikit image of the man, who had a beard and was wearing a motorcycle helmet.

Prosecutor Maillaud will now no doubt face questions as to why he chose not release the image to the public in the days after the murder when the cold-blooded crime had grabbed the attention of the world's media. Maillaud defended his decision on Tuesday claiming it was kept out of the public domain for “strategic reasons”.

“We did not want this person to go into hiding,” he said.

Maillaud said the identikit portrait would be released to the media in the coming days.

The decision to issue the e-fit image comes after  BBC investigation, aired on Monday, concluded the murderer of a British-Iraqi businessman and his family in the French Alps last year probably had an accomplice.

The Panorama programme also carried the first interview with the murdered man's brother, in which he protested his innocence but admitted the pair had fallen out over their father's inheritance.

The hour-long programme talked to two key witnesses, who both described seeing a motorcycle and a BMW 4x4 close to the murder scene

Former RAF pilot Brett Martin discovered the gruesome murders while on a bike ride, and described how he had seen a motorcyclist riding away from the scene shorty beforehand.

And, in his first media interview, a French forestry worker said he saw the motorcyclist pull into the parking spot where the Hilli family were murdered.

He described the motorcycle as white and black with panniers and said it was ridden by a man dressed in black.

He explained that his colleagues later talked to the man over a minor traffic violation, and described him as having "a bit of a beard".

According to Maillaud, these colleagues were able to "get a glimpse" of his face when he lifted his helmet's face shield.

Both witnesses also described seeing a grey British BMW X5 4x4 vehicle heading towards the scene driven by a man described as "slightly bald" with "dark skin, no glasses".

But Maillaud stressed nothing so far designated the motorcyclist as the killer. "What we are saying is that the murders cannot be the work of just one man."

The BBC investigation pinpointed the motorcyclist as the likely killer.

Both witnesses also described seeing a grey British BMW X5 4x4 vehicle heading towards the scene driven by a man described as "slightly bald" with "dark skin, no glasses".

Panorama said this man was a likely accomplice, and suggested he had possibly fled to Italy immediately after the killing.

Zaid al-Hilli, the dead man's 54-year-old brother, was arrested by British police in June on suspicion of masterminding the killings.

But he claims that French police have failed to properly investigate the possibility that the real target was Sylvain Mollier, a Frenchman who was also shot dead near the family's car as he cycled through the hills above Lake Annecy.

"They are covering up for someone in France," Hilli, who is due to answer police bail on Wednesday, told the BBC.

"Mollier was involved in family disputes and was an outsider to (his) rich family.

"We are dealing with very powerful local people, they know each other and are in each other's pockets.

"They focused attention on us, it has a racist background."

Claims 'held no water'

French prosecutor Eric Maillaud earlier dismissed the claims, telling AFP they "held no water".

He told the BBC that police were convinced Mollier was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Their lead theory is that a family inheritance dispute was the motive for the killings.

Zaid was unable to comment on the row as he is under investigation for fraud after it was alleged he got his father, Kadhim, to draw up a will excluding Saad, and also that he tried to obtain a credit card for his father's Swiss bank account.

Zaid admitted that police were called to an argument between the two at Saad's house in the leafy London suburb of Claygate, which they had inherited from their mother.

"Every family has disagreements, we mustn't exaggerate them," he explained. "Saad had issues, I didn't really have issues."

He said he had offered to take a lie detector test, but that he would not go to France for questioning because "I don't trust the French".

"It's a tragedy for the whole family," he added. "We used to play together. This will never leave me, it is with me every minute of the day."

Zaid said he had given 25 hours of interviews to British police.

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