I SAW ALPS ASSASSINS ON WAY TO MASSACRE
Saturday September 8 2012 by Giles Sheldrick
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A RETIRED RAF officer who stumbled across the Alpine forest massacre has provided dramatic evidence in the hunt for the assassins, it emerged last night.
The man, believed to be a former pilot who has a second home in France, was out cycling when he came upon the gruesome scene.
As detectives stepped up their hunt for the professional hitmen who they believe executed wealthy Saad Al-Halli, his dentist wife Iqbal and her mother, police sources said the unnamed Briton has given them detailed descriptions of the possible getaway car and of a lone motorcyclist.
He can consider himself lucky to be alive as he was overtaken by a French cyclist who was shot dead after witnessing the cold-blooded assassination. He has told police he thinks he saw the killers speed past him on the way to the scene.
Last night the man was being kept in a police safe house but has provided police with a full account of the carnage he came across on Wednesday afternoon.
He clearly remembers seeing a green 4x4 vehicle and a motorcyclist speeding past him towards the scene which he arrived at minutes later, giving weight to the theory the shocking murders were carried out by more than one individual.
His evidence is key to trying to solve the mystery of a horrific killing that has shocked France and baffled seasoned detectives.
It emerged last night that the RAF veteran with “nerves of steel” is terrified of being identified.
Colonel Bertrand Francois, head of the local gendarmerie, praised the Englishman for the way he acted.
He not only put seven-year-old Zeinab Al-Hilli in the recovery position but turned the car’s engine off and then called the police.
He has been unable to sleep since and is relying on police to protect his identity, said Mr Francois.
He added: “His private life is over for the coming months. He can’t sleep. He can’t go out and shop.
“We are doing everything to protect the man’s anonymity. Put yourself in his shoes – imagine what would happen if he goes public? His life will change from one day to the next and he doesn’t want that to happen.”
There have been fears that those responsible for the carnage will strike again – perhaps targeting witnesses to the murders.
Eric Maillaud, the Annecy prosecutor, said that the British military veteran has a second home close to Lake Annecy, and divides his time between Britain and France.
He praised the cyclist for his “extraordinary” conduct, adding: “His testimony and bravery should be saluted. He is a former professional of the Royal Air Force, so he’s someone with nerves of steel.
“He’s deeply shocked, but had extraordinary reflexes to put this girl in the recovery position and played a vital part in saving her life.
“He’s a former RAF pilot and perhaps has a superior ethic to many others. If we are in need of him, he will come wherever he is.
“I remind you that he’s a brave witness and a free man and has the right to return to Britain to recover after the shock he went through.”
Police yesterday said Iraqi-born aircraft engineer Saad, his wife and her mother were each shot in the forehead three times during a pre-planned ambush as they sat parked in a remote layby of an Alpine forest near the resort of Annecy, in eastern France. The couple’s two young daughters Zeinab and Zeena, four, were incredibly spared death.
Police sources say the ruthless killers used automatic pistols for their killing spree.
Locals report hearing an intense 30-second blast of gunfire before the gang sped off, leaving discarded bullet rounds, a trail of blood and tyre marks on the road.
The chillingly clinical nature of the murders has strengthened the police’s main theory that experienced hitmen are responsible.
Iraqi-born Mr Al-Hilli, of Claygate, Surrey, was shot at point-blank range as he sat at the wheel of his burgundy British-registered BMW estate car he had used to drive his family to a caravan holiday near Lake Annecy.
The assassins then delivered a second and third shot to the head in a trademark gangland-style execution.
Police sources say the brutal means of execution is a classic modus operandi of gunmen who are contracted to kill, whether working for criminal gangs, terrorist groups, or the security services.
In all, the gunmen discharged 25 bullets, leaving the family’s car riddled with holes.
French cyclist Sylvain Mollier, a father of three in his 40s, who overtook the former RAF serviceman on the foothills of the Alpine pass near the picturesque village of Chevaline, was quickly identified by the executioners as a potential witness and also shot multiple times. Incredibly, the bloody chaos was found just a few minutes later by the British man and he raised the alarm. Zeinab managed to escape from the car before being shot in the shoulder and beaten in the head by a pistol handle.
She remains in a medically-induced coma in hospital and is unaware her parents have been killed.
Miraculously, her traumatised younger sister Zeena survived unhurt by hiding for eight hours in the footwell of the family BMW underneath her mother’s body while police failed to search the vehicle.
She is aware her parents have been murdered and is being looked after by specially-trained child psychologists.
Police said they had given up hope of extracting key information from Zeena as she hid as soon as she heard shooting but hope her elder sister will be soon able to described in painstaking detail how the drama unfolded.
The professional way Mr Al-Hilli was targeted means attention will focus on his complicated private and professional life as British and French detectives search for clues for the massacre.
One line of inquiry is an alleged family inheritance dispute, which may have involved properties owned in Britain, France and Spain.
Police are also now pouring their resources into trying to find the green 4x4 vehicle although they revealed a further witness reported seeing a erratically-driven car shortly after the killings.
Eyewitness Sylvie Lecoeur, 49, told how a man driving a white car minutes after the assassination looked “agitated” while speeding through Chevaline.
She said: “He was coming down the hill on the wrong side, and I was coming back up the hill towards my house on the right. I was terrified because the car was right in front of me.
“At the last minute he braked and swerved and so did I so we just avoided hitting each other. It was a small white car, maybe a Peugeot 306 or 206.
“There was one man behind the wheel. He looked very agitated. He was driving so fast, as though he was in a car chase.”
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