Hopes for a British backpacker ambushed in the Australian Outback were fading last night after forensic science tests appeared to confirm he had been shot.
Blood found at the scene of the ambush, 175 miles north of Alice Springs, was reported to have matched that of Peter Falconio, 28, who has been missing since he and his girlfriend were attacked late on Saturday. Police have closed a 300-mile (485km) stretch of road between Alice Springs and the town of Katherine and warned motorists not to travel along the highway until the assailant has been caught.
Mr Falconio's father, Luciano, and brother, Paul, flew to the search scene last night. Earlier, Mr Falconio, 59, wept at his home in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, as he spoke of his son, who was expected home soon from an eight-month trip with Joanne Lees, 27. The couple had also travelled to New Zealand, Nepal and Cambodia. "I hope anybody who knows something comes forward," Mr Falconio said.
The pair were described as the perfect couple by their families. They moved to Brighton in 1998 so Mr Falconio could start a construction degree and Miss Lees worked as a travel agent. They were driving north after sunset near Barrow Creek, having visited Uluru and Kings Canyon in the Northern Territory on Saturday, when they were flagged down by their attacker.
Ms Lees told police that Mr Falconio got out to help the man, and then she heard a gunshot. She said she was then punched in the face, forced into the back of their camper van and bound with tape by her ankles and wrists. She managed to free her legs while the attacker was distracted, hid for four hours in the scrub as he searched for her with a torch and a dog, flagged down a motorist and arrived, traumatised, at a hotel in the middle of the night.
The search for Mr Falconio is proving extremely difficult, despite several reported sightings of the suspect and the discovery of the couple's orange van, in bushland away from the Stuart Highway where the gunman had apparently driven it off the road. Aboriginal trackers have joined the land and air search over a million square kilometres of arid plains, but police at Barrow Creek, the site of a former telegraph station, have made clear that the effort is nearly hopeless.
Commander Bob Fields, of the Northern Territory police, said: "I don't think things could look any blacker."
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies