In Depth

Gun used on al-Hilli is Serbian Mafia's signature weapon

Perpetrators could have staged a road accident – instead it seems they were trying to send a message

Crispin Black

IT LOOKS like a contract killing. The Skorpion machine pistol gives the game away – it is the signature weapon of the disparate and aggressive Balkan nationalist/criminal fraternity sometimes referred to as the Serbian Mafia, but which includes nationals of all the former states of Yugoslavia.

Skorpions, originally designed and manufactured by the Czechs in the 1960s, were made later under licence in Yugoslavia. You can tell the Yugoslav version from its cheap plastic hand-grips. Issued to some Yugoslav soldiers, particularly special forces, it later became the favoured weapon of Serbian ethnic cleansers and thugs including the notorious Arkan.   Most versions can be set to fire in three different modes by clicking a switch at the side – single rounds, short bursts and fully automatic. The problem with weapons of this type is that although they have a very high rate of fire (850 rounds a minute) their magazine capacity is limited to 20 rounds.  

The French police say that they have recovered 25 spent cases from the scene – all from the same weapon, suggesting that the perpetrator had to change magazines during his killing spree. It's a very light weapon – about 3lb (1.36 kg) depending on the version – but it fires a heavy bullet (7.65 mm) with considerable stopping power – the same calibre as James Bond's Walther PPK.   

As a result it can be difficult to control and needs to be held firmly in both hands to have any accuracy. It's a bit like holding a powerful electric hand-drill with a mind of its own. Its very short barrel length and tendency to jerk upwards during firing mean that except in expert hands it is not particularly accurate beyond 20ft. Whoever was firing it – the French authorities are suggesting only one weapon was used - knew what he was doing. And he made sure that the victims were finished off with two shots to the head – a "double tap" in military jargon. It is usually a sign not just of ruthlessness but also of military training. According to some accounts, the same technique was used by US Navy Seals to kill Bin Laden in May 2011.   In order to mount such an ambush the murderer needed to be fairly sure that the al-Hilli family were going to be at the secluded car park in the woods outside Chevaline within a certain time window.  Either he knew something about their holiday routine or lured them there for a meeting. The latter seems more likely. Witnesses at one of the caravan sites have said that Saad al-Hilli left the site on numerous occasions – on his own.    When the carnage was discovered, four members of the family were inside, the doors locked, including the four year old Zeena who survived by lying doggo under her dead mother's skirts.  Curiously, Zainab, the seven-year-old currently in hospital in Grenoble, was found unconscious outside the car.  She was shot in the shoulder and had her skull fractured.  She probably owes her life to a passing British cyclist and ex-RAF man who put her in the recovery position before going for help.  A seven-year-old eye witness will be a priceless asset for the investigation.

We still have no motive and the French investigating magistrate is publicly wary of jumping to any conclusions. The means of the killings are also puzzling.

Liquidating the al-Hilli family, if that was the aim, in a non-suspicious way would be a fairly simple proposition for anyone with intelligence or military training. A staged car accident would be the most obvious solution - mountain roads are often dangerous; indeed into the woods is classified as a 'Route Dangereuse' in signs clearly visible behind photographs of the French Police cordon. President Milosevic's thugs used to ram vehicles off mountain roads when they were trying not to be too obvious.  

So it looks as though the carnage was deliberate. Murders of this sort are essentially a form of lethal street theatre – the perpetrators are trying not just to kill but also to send a message to others.   The French authorities and public have been greatly disturbed by the killings. Their mood will not have improved by the discovery on Tuesday of another car full of bullet-ridden bodies (probably gangsters) on the island of Corsica.  

In the 1973 film The Day of The Jackal, the senior French officials trying to track down a professional hitman intent on assassinating General de Gaulle are under such pressure from above (particularly the Elysee Palace) that they are forced to eat, wash and sleep in their offices.

My guess is that poor Eric Maillaud, the Procureur of Annecy who is leading the investigation, is going to need a camp bed. At a press conference scheduled for 1pm today he is expected to confirm the dispatch of further French investigators to the UK and perhaps reveal additional forensic details that emerged yesterday during a further search of the scene.

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