I believe Joanne, declares missing tourist's mother

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The Independent Online

The mother of the British tourist missing in the Australian Outback believes his girlfriend's version of events, she said yesterday, and she is clinging to the hope that her son is still alive.

Joan Falconio, whose son Peter is feared to have been shot dead on the highway north of Alice Springs 17 days ago, defended Joanne Lees, whose account of the incident has been questioned by some sections of the media.

In her first public comments on Mr Falconio's disappearance, she dismissed suggestions that Ms Lees might be a suspect. She told the BBC's Breakfast News: "Joanne told the truth about what happened, and that's that. I know the girl so well. She has been going out with Peter for six years. She is like a daughter to me."

Ms Lees, 27, a former travel agent from Huddersfield, told police that the couple were waved down by a man in a pick-up truck as they travelled towards Darwin on the Stuart Highway. After Mr Falconio, 28, got out to speak to him, she said she heard a gunshot, then she was tied up and thrown into the truck. Although her hands were bound, Ms Lees managed to wriggle her legs free and escape. She then hid in the desert for six hours.

Some Australian reporters have asked why only the footprints of Ms Lees were found at the scene and questioned how she managed to free her arms. Police say they have no reason to disbelieve her and that she is free to leave Australia. Mr Falconio's father and brother, who flew out to Australia, have also given her public support.

Mrs Falconio, who was speaking from the family home in Manchester, said the couple, who were touring Australia as part of a round-the-world trip, were devoted to each other. Although blood found at the spot where Ms Lees says they were stopped matched her son's DNA, she said her family were hoping he would be found alive. "That's all we've got to cling on to, that he is alive," she said. "We can't think of anything else.

"It's no easier today than it was on the first day. We need an end to this, we need a result. We're just coping as best we can, but it's been a nightmare. I have spoken to Joanne, but really we were too upset to say anything. I should think she's still traumatised. We're all just waiting for some news."

Mrs Falconio appealed to the Australian public to help find the gunman, urging people who recognised the E-fit drawing of him to come forward.

"I just hope I can reach the people of Australia so they will give some information that will lead to Peter being found," she said. "Somebody must know something about the attacker; is he a neighbour, does he live down the road? Think, please."

Detectives in Alice Springs have offered a reward of £90,000 to help catch the gunman. A 35-year-old man who fitted his description was arrested in Sydney a week ago, but his alibi made it impossible for him to have been anywhere near the crime scene.