Police test footprint near scene of Outback attack

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The Independent Online

Police investigating the attack on two British tourists in the Australian Outback conducted forensic tests yesterday on a footprint found near the scene.

Peter Falconio, 28, has not been seen since he and his girlfriend, Joanne Lees, 27, were held up by a gunman as they travelled in their camper van on a remote desert highway 175 miles north of Alice Springs nine days ago. The man flagged the couple down, and Ms Lees heard what she thought was a gunshot after Mr Falconio, a building surveyor from Huddersfield, got out to speak to him.

She was then punched in the face, bound, gagged and thrown into the man's pick-up truck. But she managed to escape and spent six hours hiding in desert scrub while he searched for her with his dog and a flashlight. She then stumbled back on to the highway, where she waved down a lorry.

The footprint was found near the scene of the attack at Barrow Creek, and a cast of it was taken for forensic examination. A Northern Territory police spokeswoman said it was not yet clear whether it was connected with the incident.

Police say that the chances of finding Mr Falconio alive are bleak. Despite one of the biggest manhunts ever launched in Australia, the only trace found of him so far has been a pool of blood on the highway. DNA tests conducted on his father, Luciano, and brother, Paul, suggest that the blood would have come from him.

Aboriginal trackers, who have been helping police to hunt for Mr Falconio and the gunman, continued to search bush tracks in the Barrow Creek area yesterday.

Police indicated yesterday that they had potentially crucial information that they have not publicly disclosed because they did not want to tip off the gunman, who could be monitoring media reports about the case.

They said they had several leads following a flood of calls from the public in response to a request for information, but declined to give details. Police Commander Max Pope said detectives were keeping certain information to themselves. "I guess that the gunman is trying to monitor what we're doing if he is listening to the media, but I can assure him that we aren't telling the media everything," he said.

Police urged people yesterday to contact the authorities if they had attended camel races in Alice Springs on the day of the attack and might have seen the gunman or the British couple there.

Police have released a sketch of the suspect and his vehicle, a white four-wheel-drive truck with a chrome bullbar. The truck appears to have been customised, with an opening added that links the cabin with the back.

Roadblocks have been mounted across the Northern Territory, and police in aeroplanes and helicopters and on motorcycles are attempting to search 386,000 square miles of desert, an area more than twice the size of France. The attack has stretched police resources in the Northern Territory, which has a tiny force of 989 officers for a region with the highest murder rate in Australia.

Police are considering the possibility that the couple were followed and trapped by a stalker who was obsessed with Ms Lees, but say that the theory is a "last resort".