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Alps murder: focus shifts to family's 'Iraqi origins'

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A week after the mysterious quadruple murder in the Alps, investigators are focusing on three possible explanations – all pointing to a targeted attack on the al-Hilli family.

The public prosecutor for the Annecy area, Eric Maillaud, said last night that the investigation might take months, even years, but had established three "principal lines of inquiry."

Mr Maillaud listed the three possible leads as a family conflict over money; Saad al-Hilli's sensitive work as an aeronautic engineer; and – intriguingly – his "Iraqi origins".

"The fact that he was born in Iraq, that he had family in Iraq, of course that's something that is of interest and we are asking ourselves if there is a link between that and his death," Mr Maillaud said.

The prosecutor declined to elaborate but complained the French investigators were finding it difficult to work with the authorities in Baghdad.

Newspapers in the Middle East have been speculating for days that the killings might have some link with the billions of dollars concealed by the late Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein.

Mr Maillaud revealed that the bodies of the four victims – Mr al Hilli, 50, his wife Iqbal, 47, her 77-year-old mother and a local cyclist, Sylvain Mollier, 45 – had now been released to their families.

He said the "only eye-witness" of the massacre, seven-year-old Zainab al-Hilli, was still not well enough to talk to investigators. "She will, of course, be listened to very carefully," he said. "But her doctors have got to help her to get back to the best possible health, and then eventually, we hope she will be able to tell us what she knows."

The little girl was found by a British cyclist staggering, and then collapsing, soon after the attack on her family's wine-coloured BMW on a remote mountain track above Lake Annecy in the French Alps last Wednesday afternoon. She had been shot in the shoulder and beaten repeatedly over the head with a blunt instrument – possibly a gun. Her mother father and grandmother had each been shot twice in the head.

A French cyclist, who apparently stumbled on the murders, was also shot twice in the head and five times in the back.

Mr Maillaud angrily refused to talk about a leak from the investigation earlier this week which revealed that all four victims had been murdered with the same semi-obsolete, 7.65mm automatic pistol.

He said that other possible explanations for the murders – a robbery, a random act by a psychopath, an attack on the French cyclist – had not been completely excluded.

He said Mr al-Hilli's brother, Zaid, "denies the existence" of the family conflict but "some elements" had been found by three days of searches of the family home at Claygate in Surrey.

Relatives of the al-Hilli family yesterday issued a statement saying they were "heartbroken" but "touched by the expressions of sympathy from people all over the world".