Police investigating the Al-Hilli massacre in the French Alps have arrested a local man described as a “hillbilly”.
The 48-year-old man is believed to be the motorcyclist who was seen close to the quadruple killing above Lake Annecy on 5 September 2012.
Investigators said that the man held was being questioned as a witness and should not be described as a “suspect” at this stage. They also spoke, however, of a “significant breakthrough” in a complex, 18-month investigation which has chased possible links with Britain, Iraq, Switzerland, Sweden, Spain and the United States.
It is believed at least seven other local people may be arrested for “acting as a criminal gang”. It is unclear whether they will be questioned in connection with the quadruple murder itself or whether they are suspected of withholding information.
The official spokesman for the investigation, Eric Maillaud, the Annecy state prosecutor, said that the arrested man had no connection with any of the victims. He refused to identify him but sources in the investigation described him as a “hillbilly”, and a “ silent” man.
He had once been a municipal policeman in the nearby town of Menthon Saint-Bernard but now worked in Switzerland.
The man, who was in custody last night at the regional gendarmerie headquarters in Chambéry, can be held for up to four days. The gendarmerie raided his home in La Thuile, a few kilometres from the crime scene yesterday morning. They later dug up the garden of another house that he owns in the neighbouring village of Talloires, using spades and a metal detector.
The man under arrest reportedly bears a strong resemblance to a man in a motor-cycle helmet shown in an Identikit image which was released by investigators in November last year. It remains unclear why the French inquiry waited 14 months to publish this image.
Forestry workers told gendarmes at the time that they had seen a beefy man with a beard on a private road in the mountains just above the crime scene on the afternoon of the murders. He was wearing a rare type of motorcycle helmet with a sideways opening at the mouth and jaw.
A gunman attacked the Iraqi-British Al-Hilli family in their maroon-coloured BNW estate car in a lay-by at the end of a steeply winding forest road near the village of Chevaline. Saad al-Hilli, 50, a satellite engineer from Surrey, his wife, Iqbal, 47, and her mother Suhaila al-Allaf, 74, were shot repeatedly. A local cyclist, Sylvain Mollier, 45, was found lying dead beside their car, shot several times in the head and body.
Seven-year-old Zainab al-Hilli was found alive outside the car, beaten savagely about the head and face and wounded by a gunshot in her shoulder. Her sister, Zeena, aged four, was found eight hours after the killings, unharmed but terrified, hiding under her dead mother’s legs.
The murders have generated several official lines of inquiry – and a host of wild speculations – but their motive has never been clear. The only other person arrested during the joint French-British investigation was Mr Al-Hilli’s older brother, Zaid.
He was questioned by Surrey police last year about a quarrel with his brother over their father’s £800,000 will but was released without charge. Surrey police said last month that there was no evidence to link him with the killings.
The Annecy prosecutor, Mr Maillaud, said last September, on the anniversary of the massacre, that the investigation team was also looking at the possibility of connections with Iraqi politics or “industrial espionnage” linked to Mr Al-Hill’s work as a satellite engineer.
Mr Maillaud played down the possibility that the killings were the work of a lone gunman. He also dismissed the possibility that the local cyclist, Sylvain Moller, was the real target.