Pilot's family furious at leaked allegations

NOTHING ABOUT Walid al-Batouti suggests that he is a man given to crude gestures, but - desperately hurt, and fighting to defend the name of his aristocratic Egyptian family - he felt compelled yesterday to make an exception.

"Look", he said, brandishing two bricks of $100 bills as he stood amid the Oriental rugs, carved mahogany furniture and crystal glass that adorn his elegant Cairo apartment. There was at least $4,000 in his fists. "People say that our family has financial problems. What are they talking about?"

Mr Batouti, 33, emerged yesterday in a battle to clear the name of his close friend and relative, Gamil al-Batouti, 59, a relief pilot whom US investigators suspect of crashing EgyptAir flight 990 in a baffling act of suicide and mass murder.

Meanwhile, the first law suit arising from the crash has been filed, claiming $50m (pounds 31m) in damages. The suit was lodged by the family of Ghassan Koujan, a Syrian chef flying to the Middle East to arrange immigration papers so his wife and three children could join him in New Jersey. Mr Koujan had been in America for 10 years and was seeking US citizenship.

Boeing, which built the jet, is named with the airline as a co-defendant. Legal experts predict that Boeing will be absolved of liability if theories, that the plane was brought down deliberately, are proved. EgyptAir will almost certainly face serial lawsuits.

The slurring of Gamil al-Batouti's name has caused fury in Egypt, one of America's key Middle East allies, treading on deep cultural sensitivities and raising diplomatic tension.

Walid al-Batouti was joined in his campaign last night by a close colleague of the dead pilot. Captain Zaki al-Kashef said he met Gamil al-Batouti in New York before the flight. "We stood near the hotel reception as I was checking in," Capt Kashef said. "He was laughing as usual, with a smile on his face. It was a smile of someone returning to his kids."

If the pilot had ever needed money, he would have known where to come, said Mr Batouti. "I would have given him anything. A kidney. My children. Anything." But his "uncle Gamil" (the two are, in fact, cousins) did not suffer from financial problems, as some Western media have suggested. Nor, he said, was it true that the pilot was depressed, or embittered about his job.

And nor did he resemble that popular Western stereotype - the Muslim fundamentalist. His uncle, he said, "hated terrorism" and was looking forward to receiving a $180,000 retirement package only five months away. "I called him the Hotline, because he was the one that everyone in the family went to when they had problems."

"When they said these things about my uncle, they thought we don't speak English and still ride camels," he said. "But when they decided to hit on us, they picked the wrong people."

The investigators pointing an accusing (but anonymous) finger were, indeed, mistaken if they thought they had singled out an unknown Arab.

The al-Batouti family is Egyptian landed gentry, an old-money family well acquainted with the West and influential in Egypt's high places, including the army and air force. Until recently, an al-Batouti was the head of President Hosni Mubarak's security; Walid's father was deputy minister for information; and Gamil, a decorated, veteran flight instructor in the air force, was the son of a powerful provincial mayor.

Nor is Walid al-Batouti an easy opponent, even for the spin-doctors behind the mighty world of the US aviation industry and federal government.

Fielding calls on his mobile and flourishing a wad of sympathetic e- mails, he made sure his message got out.

Visitors were shown a video of his uncle landing a 767 - "an aircraft he loved" - in bad weather at JFK airport in New York. He intends, he says, to "spend every penny" he has to clear the pilot's name.

Investigators suspect that Gamil al-Batouti was alone in the cockpit when he suddenly uttered an Arabic prayer, saying: "I made my decision now. I put my faith in God's hands." He then switched off the autopilot, and plunged the Boeing 767 into a high-speed dive.

"I have a feeling that they thought, `Ah! verses from the Koran! It's obviously a terrorist!'" said Walid al-Batouti. But the prayer is commonly used in everyday life. More importantly, no Muslim - and his uncle was devout - would pray before committing suicide and murder, offences that would make him an outcast.

Speculation that Gamil al-Batouti brought down the plane in the hope that the compensation money would pay for medicine to treat the skin disorder of his daughter, Aya, 10, is not true, he says. She is "three- quarters" cured. And her father's retirement money was worth far more than any posthumous compensation from EgyptAir.