Ports alert for family after arson attack

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The Independent Online

Police investigating an arson attack at the home of a millionaire who has been missing since the fire put Britain's ports and airports on alert yesterday.

Firefighters have been unable to search Christopher Foster's £1.2m country home since it was gutted on Tuesday because the building is still unsafe, but officers expect to be able to access the building today. Privately they believe that when they do enter Osbaston House in Oswestry, Shropshire, they will find the bodies of Mr Foster, 50, his wife Jillian, 49, and their daughter Kirstie, 15.

Yesterday, however, police warned immigration staff at every air and sea port to stop the family – if any of them are still alive – from leaving the country. Superintendent Gary Higgins, of West Mercia Constabulary, said: "Every possible line of inquiry to trace the family is being followed up, including an all-ports warning and speaking to family and friends.

"Until we can enter the property, we do not know whether the family was inside at the time of the fire, which we believe was started deliberately."

Supt Higgins added that it could be some time before a search of the house was completed. "It is a large property and there is a lot of debris inside which will have to be painstakingly sifted through and examined," he added. "This is not something which can be done quickly."

Earlier, officers revealed that the charred remains of three horses had been found in stables at the house, which were also set ablaze. Last night, there were unconfirmed reports that the horses were shot dead before the fire, along with the family's ducks, chickens and guinea pigs. Spent bullet casings and blood stains were found, and the doors and windows of the main house were boarded up from the inside before the blaze, sources said.

Neighbours claimed that 999 crews arriving to tackle the blaze found their way blocked by a horsebox that had been parked behind electronic gates at the end of the drive, to prevent them from being opened. However, police refused to comment on those suggestions.

Mr Higgins added: "There has been a lot of speculation in some sections of the media, which has caused serious distress to the Fosters' family and friends. Such speculation is not helpful to our investigation and, until we gain access to the house and complete our search and examination, we are not in a position to make any further comment on such issues."

Asked whether the incident was likely to become a murder hunt or missing persons inquiry, he added: "This is being treated as arson and, until we can determine whether the family was inside, it will remain arson."

Meanwhile, Kirstie Foster's friends at Ellesmere College, a co-educational boarding school in north Shropshire, left messages of support for her on websites yesterday. The college said in a statement: "We are very concerned for the safety of Kirstie and her family, who are in our thoughts and prayers. Kirstie is a charming, popular and hard-working girl with many friends, all of whom are hoping she and her family will be found safe."

Mr Foster made his millions as managing director of Ulva Limited, a company which provided insulation for oil rigs. His wife was the company secretary but the business failed last September.

Its complusory liquidation hearing went to appeal in London, at which a judge said Mr Foster was "not to be trusted".