Brother and sister held over death of yachtsman

Portuguese police are investigating the death of a retired French civil servant, found tied hand and foot in the wreck of his giant trimaran, which sank off the Algarve.

A French brother and sister are suspected by Portuguese authorities of killing the owner of the yacht, André Le Floc'h, 61, before it sank in a storm, but many details of the incident remain unclear.

French investigators say that there may have been an attempt to steal the trimaran or that the suspects might have been attempting to smuggle arms or drugs. The couple, named only as "Thierry B", 51, and "Corinne C", 48, insist that they are innocent. They told Portuguese police that they tied up the yacht's skipper after he tried to rape Corinne. A storm then struck the vessel and they were forced to abandon ship.

According to Le Figaro, French police have been informed by their Portuguese colleagues that the couple have admitted to killing M. Le Floc'h, in self-defence, before the 20m yacht capsized. The results of an autopsy are expected today.

The mystery - somewhat reminiscent of events in the 1989 movie Dead Calm, starring Nicole Kidman - is deepened by the fact that the couple appear to have no experience of sailing. They made no attempt to alter the sails or otherwise save the boat - the Belgian-registered Intermezzo - when the storm struck last Thursday.

After abandoning ship in a rubber dinghy equipped with a radio, they sent no distress call. They were picked up by a Spanish freighter and at first said nothing about the presence of M. Le Floc'h on board the capsized boat. Finally, they told Portuguese authorities that the owner had been aboard but said nothing about the alleged assault on Corinne or the fact that they had been forced to restrain him.

The body of the owner, tied hand and foot and, according to one account, weighted, was found aboard the floating wreck by Portuguese coastguard divers the next day.

The French couple, who had been recovering from hypothermia in hospital, were then taken into custody.

Corinne shouted to the press after a remand hearing in Lagos in the Algarve: "We are innocent. He attacked us on the boat. There was a storm and the boat capsized. Now, they are accusing us. They are not letting us talk to the [French] consulate or our families. Help us."

French police say that there is some doubt about whether the couple are half-brother and sister, as they claim. Thierry is said to be a known "marginal" or drifter, with a criminal record.

M. Le Floc'h was a retired senior civil servant from Sorinières near Nantes in western France. He was an experienced sailor who had bought and refitted the trimaran.

He often sailed along the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts, sometimes taking paying passengers, according to French police. His family has refused to speak to the press.

According to the couple's witness statements, leaked to the Portuguese press, the boat's owner tried to rape Corinne as she slept in a cabin, but her brother heard her cries, fought with M. Le Floc'h, knocked him out and bound him. Police have told the French press that they are baffled by the events aboard the trimaran before it sank. Since the couple had no sailing ability, it seems unlikely they tried to steal the boat.

"If the post-mortem finds a wound on the body, everything changes," one French police officer said. "The same if they find drugs or arms aboard. If the couple genuinely have no knowledge of sailing, why would they tie up or kill the skipper? That they were found in a life-raft perhaps backs up their version of events."

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