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No one has spoken to us, says pilot's family

FAMILY and friends of the EgyptAir co-pilot now in the cross-hairs of the crash investigation say that they have yet to be interviewed by US inquiry officials about why he may have abruptly decided to ditch the jet into the sea in an act of suicide and mass murder.

Two sons of Gameel el-Batouty and his closest friend and business partner told the Independent on Sunday that no approach has been made to them by investigators seeking information about what has now become a highly critical question: why - out of the blue - would a civil airline pilot wish to kill himself, and 216 others, including 61 of his countrymen?

Leaks from officials in the US have increasingly centred on the theory that the 59-year-old co-pilot is to blame, diverting public attention from a plethora of other unanswered questions - such as the 767 itself, two previous crashes in the same area, airport security in New York and EgyptAir's decidedly patchy safety record.

According to the theory, the crash was a calculated and cold-blooded act of mass murder, committed by a pilot who carried tens of thousands of passengers back and forth across the Atlantic in a 14-year career with EgyptAir. His motive, and psychological condition, have become essential components of the case.

Yet his friends and family in Cairo say that, although investigators have interviewed some of the co-pilot's EgyptAir colleagues in the United States, they have yet to question those that knew him best in Egypt. Nor have they heard the recording which would help identify his voice, establishing whether he was at the controls.

They include Nabil Ibrahim, 59, a life-long friend with whom Mr el-Batouty was planning to run a small market garden after his retirement, due next March. Mr Ibrahim, an engineer, saw the pilot only two hours before he left for his last trip to the US. He was, he says, "very stable" and not even remotely depressed - as some reports have suggested - or worried about money. The aviator's sons, Kamil, 20, a student at business school, and Mohammed, 22, a police officer, have also confirmed that neither they nor other family members have been quizzed about their father, although they say they would happily co-operate.

Further evidence may eventually surface, but all the motives so far offered up in news reports - from poverty to suicidal depression - have proved highly unconvincing. For example, the Washington Post stated last week that he was "long frustrated that he never made the rank of captain". Even if this was a pretext for mass murder, Mr Ibrahim says that the co- pilot had never raised this issue with him. His friend never anticipated a higher position in EgyptAir, he said, as he was a late starter with the company, having spent much of his previous career as an pilot instructor in the Egyptian Air Institute and the air force.

His cousin - and former EgyptAir colleague - Walid el-Batouty, 33, also never heard the pilot complain about his rank. "The man was about to retire in March. Why - at the end of his career - would he now start wondering why he wasn't a captain?"

Other reports have speculated that he was short of money - although it later transpired that he was a member of a wealthy and established Egyptian family. Last week his family sought to scotch these claims for good by allowing journalists to inspect his three-storey retirement home in a wealthy suburb outside Cairo, complete with luxury new furnishings, many of which the pilot had brought back from trips to the US. He was anticipating a retirement package of $180,000, (pounds 110,000) to add to riches which - according to Mr Ibrahim - he inherited from his father, a former provincial governor.

Nor has there been any evidence in Cairo to support suggestions that he was depressed, although friends concede that he had been concerned about medical treatment for his 10-year-old daughter, Aya, who suffers from lupus. All say he was a happy and sociable man who was looking forward to flying to New York for his 37th wedding anniversary. Nor was there any sign that he suffered from depression in preceding years.

Two years ago, according to his son, Kalim, and Mr Ibrahim he helped save an EgyptAir 767 jet in an emergency landing at Nairobi, after it developed problems in the left engine. Nothing has emerged to explain why Mr el-Batouty - a devout Muslim, a father of five and a healthy, wealthy man - would turn into a mass killer and excommunicate himself from his faith.

"Criminals are innocent until proven guilty," said Walid el-Batouty, "We've been accused, we've been judged, and we're just waiting for the punishment."