Swiss police hold father of air disaster victim for stabbing

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Swiss police have arrested a man aged 48 over the fatal stabbing on Tuesday of the air traffic controller who was on duty when a passenger plane collided with a cargo plane over southern Germany in July 2002.

It now seems almost certain that the killing was, as had been widely speculated, an act of revenge. Police said the suspect, believed to be Russian, lost his wife, son and daughter in the crash.

Georges Dulex, the head of Zurich's crime police, refused to release the name or nationality of the arrested man, who has denied killing Peter Nielsen. "The man had an alibi for the time of the crime, and that is now being checked," Mr Dulex said.

Although identity papers were recovered with the man, these had yet to be validated.

At a press conference yesterday, Zurich's crime investigation police released new details of the murder.

The attacker, speaking with a heavy Eastern European accent, asked a neighbour where he could find Mr Nielsen, a 36-year-old Dane.

Mr Nielsen's wife, Mette, who was at home with the couple's three young children at the time of the attack, subsequently found her husband in the garden bleeding to death from multiple stab wounds and saw the man fleeing on foot.

The probable murder weapon, a folding knife with a 14cm blade, was recovered near the scene and was being checked for fingerprints. Police said revenge might have been a motive for the attack.

While his colleague took a break, Mr Nielsen had been the only controller monitoring traffic over Lake Constance. Crash warning systems had been out of action and he acknowledged that errors in the control network contributed to the crash.

He continued to work for the air traffic control agency, Skyguide, but was transferred to other duties. He and his employers were criticised over the mid-air collision, which occurred in Swiss airspace and cost 71 lives. Most of the dead were Russian schoolchildren travelling to Spain.

Marcel Suter, whose department deals with violent crime, said the suspect was arrested in Zurich on Wednesday afternoon, near the scene of the crime. His arrest followed investigations extending beyond Switzerland, which focused on an individual among the relatives of the crash victims who had behaved "conspicuously" in the wake of the disaster.

The public prosecutor, Pascal Gossner, said the man had been exceptionally "angry" during a memorial event at the crash site one year after the tragedy. The same person also apparently visited Switzerland in connection with the anniversary,and it seems that he showed interest in discovering the identities of the air traffic controllers who had been on duty when the mid-air collision took place, Mr Gossner said.

He added that this behaviour was not assessed as potentially dangerous at the time, but simply as the understandable failure of the grief-stricken man to come to terms with the loss of his family.

The police applied for the suspect to be held in custody while investigations continued.