Alps murders: Police ‘to issue portrait of suspect’

French police investigating the murders of a British Iraqi family in the French Alps last year are set to release a portrait image of a motorcyclist seen by several witnesses near the scene of the crime. The move comes after a BBC investigation concluded the killer had an accomplice.

Alps murders: Police 'to issue portrait of suspect'
The scene where three members of the Al-Hilli family were shot along with French cyclist Sylvain Mollier. Photo:AFP

According to reports in the French press on Tuesday, the Annecy prosecutor Eric Maillaud has finally decided to release the portrait of the suspect, after having it in his possession for over a year. 

In September 2012, Saad al-Hilli was mysteriously gunned down along with his wife and her mother in their car, which had parked by the side of a mountain road near the village of Chevaline. French cyclist Sylvain Mollier was also killed at the scene.

Saad al-Hilli's two young daughters Zeena, aged 4 and Zainab, aged 7, were with the family in the car. Zainab was left fighting for her life after being shot in the shoulder and bludgeoned over the head with a gun as she tried to escape. Her sister Zeena, managed to hide from the killer underneath her mother's skirt in the back of the car. 

Several witnesses told French police they reported seeing a motorcyclist near the scene at around the time the crime was committed.

In the days after the murder the witnesses had helped police put together an identikit image of the man, who had a beard and was wearing a motorcycle helmet.

Prosecutor Maillaud will now no doubt face questions as to why he chose not release the image to the public in the days after the murder when the cold-blooded crime had grabbed the attention of the world's media. Maillaud defended his decision on Tuesday claiming it was kept out of the public domain for “strategic reasons”.

“We did not want this person to go into hiding,” he said.

Maillaud said the identikit portrait would be released to the media in the coming days.

The decision to issue the e-fit image comes after  BBC investigation, aired on Monday, concluded the murderer of a British-Iraqi businessman and his family in the French Alps last year probably had an accomplice.

The Panorama programme also carried the first interview with the murdered man's brother, in which he protested his innocence but admitted the pair had fallen out over their father's inheritance.

The hour-long programme talked to two key witnesses, who both described seeing a motorcycle and a BMW 4×4 close to the murder scene

Former RAF pilot Brett Martin discovered the gruesome murders while on a bike ride, and described how he had seen a motorcyclist riding away from the scene shorty beforehand.

And, in his first media interview, a French forestry worker said he saw the motorcyclist pull into the parking spot where the Hilli family were murdered.

He described the motorcycle as white and black with panniers and said it was ridden by a man dressed in black.

He explained that his colleagues later talked to the man over a minor traffic violation, and described him as having "a bit of a beard".

According to Maillaud, these colleagues were able to "get a glimpse" of his face when he lifted his helmet's face shield.

Both witnesses also described seeing a grey British BMW X5 4×4 vehicle heading towards the scene driven by a man described as "slightly bald" with "dark skin, no glasses".

But Maillaud stressed nothing so far designated the motorcyclist as the killer. "What we are saying is that the murders cannot be the work of just one man."

The BBC investigation pinpointed the motorcyclist as the likely killer.

Both witnesses also described seeing a grey British BMW X5 4×4 vehicle heading towards the scene driven by a man described as "slightly bald" with "dark skin, no glasses".

Panorama said this man was a likely accomplice, and suggested he had possibly fled to Italy immediately after the killing.

Zaid al-Hilli, the dead man's 54-year-old brother, was arrested by British police in June on suspicion of masterminding the killings.

But he claims that French police have failed to properly investigate the possibility that the real target was Sylvain Mollier, a Frenchman who was also shot dead near the family's car as he cycled through the hills above Lake Annecy.

"They are covering up for someone in France," Hilli, who is due to answer police bail on Wednesday, told the BBC.

"Mollier was involved in family disputes and was an outsider to (his) rich family.

"We are dealing with very powerful local people, they know each other and are in each other's pockets.

"They focused attention on us, it has a racist background."

Claims 'held no water'

French prosecutor Eric Maillaud earlier dismissed the claims, telling AFP they "held no water".

He told the BBC that police were convinced Mollier was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Their lead theory is that a family inheritance dispute was the motive for the killings.

Zaid was unable to comment on the row as he is under investigation for fraud after it was alleged he got his father, Kadhim, to draw up a will excluding Saad, and also that he tried to obtain a credit card for his father's Swiss bank account.

Zaid admitted that police were called to an argument between the two at Saad's house in the leafy London suburb of Claygate, which they had inherited from their mother.

"Every family has disagreements, we mustn't exaggerate them," he explained. "Saad had issues, I didn't really have issues."

He said he had offered to take a lie detector test, but that he would not go to France for questioning because "I don't trust the French".

"It's a tragedy for the whole family," he added. "We used to play together. This will never leave me, it is with me every minute of the day."

Zaid said he had given 25 hours of interviews to British police.

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French police bust cross-Channel people-smuggling ring

French police have busted a major people-smuggling ring that has been sending migrants to Britain in dinghies, with more than a dozen boats and 700 life jackets seized in a raid, French authorities said Thursday.

French police bust cross-Channel people-smuggling ring

The ring was run by Iraqi Kurdish migrants and had a logistics hub in Lille, a northern French city about 100 kilmetres (60 miles) from the northern Channel beaches around Calais that are used for crossings.

Three Iraqi men have been charged, along with three French suspects after their arrest on Monday.

Police discovered “a real factory supplying nautical equipment” in Lille, the head of French anti-migration agency Ocriest, Xavier Delrieu, told AFP.

In what was their biggest ever seizure of equipment, they found 13 inflatable boats, 14 outboard engines, 700 life jackets, 100 pumps and 700 litres of fuel, Delrieu said.

The group is suspected of having organised 80 Channel crossings over the summer, of which 50 succeeded, with the smugglers netting around €80,000 for each one.

The arrests came due to intelligence-sharing between authorities in Belgium, Britain, Germany and the Netherlands, who are all trying to crack down on migrants crossing the Channel by boat.

The original tip-off came after a border guard control discovered a group of French youths carrying inflatables from Germany into the Netherlands.

More migrants have crossed the Channel to the UK from northern France so far this year than in the whole of 2021.

So far this year, more than 30,000 people have been detected crossing the Channel to the UK, fresh government figures showed Thursday. On Wednesday alone, the authorities detected another 667 people.

Britain’s new prime minister, Liz Truss, has faced some criticism from other Conservatives and in right-wing media outlets for not pressing for more French action against the crossings when she met President Emmanuel Macron in New York on Tuesday.

Downing Street said the issue did not come up at their talks on the margins of the UN General Assembly, which instead focused on common ground including Ukraine and energy security.

The crossings are among a host of issues that have badly strained Franco-British relations in recent years.