Annecy police await go-ahead to interview Zainab al-Hilli, 7
Prosecutor says investigators have found some 'very interesting' facts - but Zainab holds the key
EDITOR’S UPDATE: Since this item was posted, police searching the al-Hilli home in Claygate, Surrey called in army bomb disposal experts to investigate the discovery of unspecified “items”. The bomb squad left two hours later and gave the all-clear.
THE best hope for a breakthrough in the investigation of the Annecy murders now lies with seven-year-old Zainab al-Hilli who yesterday came out of the four-day coma induced by doctors at the CHU teaching hospital in Grenoble.
Zainab has serious head injuries, understood to be the result of being clubbed with the butt of a semi-automatic pistol. She was also shot in the shoulder.
Her four-year-old sister Zeena, who escaped unharmed after hiding beneath her mother's skirt in the back of the family BMW, has proved to be too young to be of help. Though she heard noises, she apparently saw nothing. She returned to Britain on Sunday where relatives and social services are debating how the orphaned girls can best be cared for.
Annecy prosecutor Eric Maillaud said that while Zainab has recovered consciousness, she is sedated and will not be interviewed until doctors give the all-clear.
He told French broadcaster RTL today that police searching for clues at the family home in Surrey and in the woods where the al-Hillis were killed have come up with some "very interesting" facts that he could not disclose. However, only Zainab can describe the killer or killers.
As Le Parisien reports, "She is in effect the sole person to have seen the attacker - or attackers - and to be in a position to say how many there were and describe them."
There has been an assumption that Zainab's father, mother and grandmother were ambushed and shot in the woods outside the village of Chevaline, near Lake Annecy, and that when a French cyclist, Sylvain Mollier, chanced upon the scene, the killer or killers shot him dead, too.
However, according to local news site ledauphine.com, an unnamed officer involved in the investigation says this is only one theory being examined and that it would be a mistake to focus solely on the notion of a contract killing of the al-Hilli family. "Was it the work of a frappadingue - a nutcase?" he asked. "And were the family really the target – or was it perhaps the cyclist?"
In other words, was Sylvain Mollier shot first and was it the al-Hilli family, perhaps parking their car for a walk in the woods, who found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time and had to be shot to preserve the killer or killers' anonymity?
This theory has not been pursued by the French or English media, because Saad al-Hilli's background as an Iraqi whose family fled Saddam Hussein's regime and as an engineer with sensitive ties to at least one defence company, appears to makes him a more feasible target for assassination.
However, Sylvain Mollier worked at the nearby Ugine plant of Cezus, a global leader in the production of zirconium, the metal used for nuclear fuel cladding. Cezus is owned by the Areva group which in 2007 was forced to deny a report in Der Spiegel that it had flouted UN sanctions by providing Iran with enriched uranium.
That said, Mollier was on paternity leave from Cezus, his partner having recently given birth to their third child, and his relative lack of seniority is unlikely to have put him in a sensitive position.
Meanwhile, an eyewitness interviewed by The Times claims he saw the al-Hillis driving towards the secluded parking area in the woods about an hour before they were found dead. No other cars followed them which suggests they had a pre-arranged rendez-vous or that they were the victims of a random attack.
A 38-year-old builder, Laurent Fillion-Robin, says he saw the family's red BMW leaving the village and climbing the road between 2.30pm and 3pm. The unnamed British cyclist who found the dead bodies of Sylvain Mollier and the al-Hillis informed the police at 3.58pm.
Neither Fillion-Robin nor any other person has so far reported hearing gunshots, suggesting the use of a silencer or silencers. Police now believe that at least one 7.65mm semi-automatic pistol was used. Various models can be adapted to take a silencer, including the Beretta Cheetah and the Chinese Type 64.