Police have begun to search the UK home of a British-Iraqi family brutally killed while vacationing in the French Alps.
French and British investigators are also to question the brother of Saad al-Hilli, the British-Iraqi engineer who was one of four victims of the unexplained massacre on Wednesday. The chief French investigator said last night that he had "reliable" information from British police that the brother had quarrelled with Mr Al-Hilli over money. That "does not automatically make him a suspect", Eric Maillaud, the Annecy public prosecutor, told a press conference last night, but he will be "formally questioned" by British police and four gendarmerie detectives who flew to London yesterday.
Mr Maillaud suggested that the inquiry was now a "Franco-British investigation" – suggesting that French authorities believed that the solution to the puzzle was in Britain, not France. Mr Maillaud said that the brother had approached British police yesterday and denied that he had ever quarrelled with his brother.
If anything, the mystery surrounding the execution-style killing of Mr Al-Hilli and his wife, an older woman of Iraqi-Swedish nationality and a French cyclist deepened yesterday. Mr Al-Hilli's four-year-old daughter Zeena has told investigators that she "hardly knew" the 75-year-old woman who was found dead on the back-seat of the Al-Hilli car beside her mother. Previously, the woman was believed to have been her maternal grandmother.
Mr Maillaud's press conference supplied several other new pieces of information about the massacre – but nothing that helped the give shape to the puzzle. He said that each of the victims had been shot "at least" three times and each "at least once" in the head. Twenty-five bullets were found inside the maroon BMW estate car.
The British cyclist who discovered the massacre scene just before 4pm on Wednesday saw a green four-wheel-drive vehicle and a small motorcycle descending the steep forest track from the tiny car park where the slaughter occurred. However, Mr Maillaud revealed that it would have been possible for the killer – or killers – to escape in the other direction on what were previously described as dead-end forest roads. A formal investigation into the premeditated murder – and attempted murder was opened yesterday and entrusted to two investigating magistrates. Mr Maillaud was asked again whether he believed that he was dealing with professional killers or hit-men. "I see the word execution being used and I don't like it," he said. "Execution implies a professional killing. All I can say is that whoever carried out this crime had every intention to kill his or her victims."
Mr Maillaud refused to say what the bullets found at the scene revealed about the number of killers and the type of weapon used. He said that it was essential that this information remain "secret".
According to Mr Maillaud, Mr Al-Hilli's brother had voluntarily approached British police yesterday to deny any connection with the killings – or any quarrel with his brother. Friends of Mr Al-Hilli have suggested that the two brothers fell out over the multimillion-pound estate of their father, who died last year.
Mr Maillaud said: "Just because he has quarrelled with his brother, he is not automatically the No 1 suspect in a murder in which four people were shot in the head." But he said that British police and the French investigators would seek to "question him formally" in the next few days.
The public prosecutor also made it clear that French investigators are relying on the older of the two surviving Al-Hilli sisters – Zeinab, aged almost eight – to help solve the mystery. The little girl is still in an artificial coma at hospital in Grenoble after a series of operations on her fractured skull. She was found by the British cyclist, a former RAF officer, staggering near her family's car after being struck repeatedly on the head and shot in the shoulder. "We hope she will recover well enough to talk to us soon," Mr Maillaud said.
Q&A: What we don't know
Who carried out the killings?
French police refuse to reveal some of the key details that might indicate who – and how many people – carried out the killings. We know that there were 25 bullets inside the car and the victims were shot three times each. But we do not know how many, or the type, of guns used. The Annecy public prosecutor, Eric Maillaud, said that information must "remain secret" for now.
Are there any suspects?
No. The only person named so far by investigators is Mr Saad al-Hilli's brother, Zaid. Mr Maillaud was at pains last night to say that the apparent quarrel between the two Al-Hilli brothers over their inheritance did not make Zaid "automatically" a suspect. Zaid presented himself to British police yesterday to deny that he had anything to do with the killing. Four French police officers were last night flying into London to speak with him.
Was British intelligence involved?
Despite some media reports and speculation on the net, intelligence sources say the family was not under scrutiny. They were wealthy when they lived in Iraq but left the country decades ago.
What can the witnesses tell police?
The British cyclist who came upon the scene has told authorities that he saw a green 4x4 and a motorcycle descending from the mountain track but little, it seems, about the people. French investigators have spoken to Zeena, aged four, but are hoping that Zeinab, seven, who's in hospital, might be able to help.