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Vikram Dodd, Sunday 28th October 2012 16:46
A relative of the British family murdered in the French Alps has demanded British authorities return the two children who survived the massacre to their family and claimed a French nuclear worker found dead at the scene was the intended target of the attack.
Dr Ahmad al-Saffar told the Guardian the family wanted the two children who survived the attack returned to them from foster care where they were placed when they came back to Britain.
He said the family believed the sisters, aged seven and four, should be being brought up in a Muslim household. Saffar added that they were being kept in foster care "against their will", which was exacerbating the "pain and suffering" caused by the loss of their parents.
Saffar is the uncle of Iqbal al-Saffar, who was found dead in a car in Annecy in September. Also shot dead was her husband, Saad al-Hilli, from Surrey, and her mother. One of their children was shot and beaten with a pistol, while another escaped unhurt. Nearby the body of a French cyclist was found.
Saffar criticised the French prosecutor and said the family felt they were not being treated as victims but were being put on trial and their lives put under a microscope.
Recent reports said ballistic tests showed the French cyclist was shot first, contrary to what had been first reported about the attack. The French authorities said they did know who was shot first.
Saffar said his family resented the speculation that feuds among relatives may have been a motive for the killing. He said: "From my family's perception I do not see any single reason why three members of my family were the targets for a murder. I do not see any reason. None of these [supposed motives] the French prosecutor has mentioned are credible at all."
"I think the French cyclist was the target. The mounting evidence and leaks are saying the main target was the cyclist. There is no reason for our family to be targeted in France when they were on vacation."
The cyclist, Sylvain Mollier, worked as a welder at the subsidiary of a French nuclear company.
Saffar dismissed speculation about a row over the will of Saad al-Hilli's father: "I think this was ridiculous, this is not something unique to the al-Hilli family. Some differences arose after the father's death, but the family are civilised people, they are not solving their problems in this brutal way."
He added: "The French prosecutor is putting our family on trial, they are not being treated as the victims any longer, they are the accused."
Speculation centred on Saad al-Hilli's brother, Zaid. Saffar said he and Zaid had helped organise the funerals last weekend in Britain and was saddened by the speculation. "This really is very disturbing to bring up these issues as the reason for this savage murder," he said. "He felt very bad about this speculation."
Earlier this month it was claimed the family had a Swiss bank account and that Hilli had been in Geneva shortly before his death. An illegal Taser gun was claimed to have been found in the family's Surrey home.
Over the weekend, Le Monde claimed Saad al-Hilli's father was linked to a payment of over £800,000 from the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, with the report saying the information had been passed to French police by German intelligence. The claims were rejected by French police who said they had no knowledge of the alleged payments nor had been given details about them.
Saffar said he doubted the claim, saying: "The father left Iraq in the 1970s because of disagreements with the regime."
Hilli's seven-year-old daughter, Zainab, was left severely wounded, and four-year-old Zeena traumatised after hiding under her mother as the gunman sprayed the car with bullets.
Saffar said Surrey county council, which has placed the orphaned sisters in foster care, should return the children to the family. "Their suffering and pain continues on top of what pain and suffering they have experienced," he said.
"They should be with their family to give them some comfort and we see that every time we meet them."
Saffar, who saw the children with their aunt last weekend, said: "It was hard to see Zainab, to hear her ask why our meetings are so short."
Their aunt is seeking guardianship of the two surviving children from the attack. Saffar said: "The social services can see these two girls want to be with their aunt." The foster parents were not Muslims, he added, and the sisters were "deprived of being in an environment which is the same as [provided] by their parents, in regards of religion and culture".
Saffar said: "We are not saying anything negative about this [foster] family – they are good – but we think the girls are better off with their aunt. The affection is not there."
He said of Zainab, whom the hitman attacked and left for dead: "I saw her last Saturday. She is doing fine. One can see very clearly she is with a foster family against her will."
In the Guardian interview, the al-Hilli family's dissatisfaction with the French investigation is barely disguised.
Saffar said the family were not being kept in touch with the progress of the investigation. He said: "We have had no contact from the French about the investigation, just interviews when we were in France after the murders, and no contact since."
The family had one meeting with British police, in addition to interviews as witnesses.
He criticised the French prosecutor, Eric Maillaud, saying: "His job is to find the killer and not to focus on the family. I hope it will not take him 10 years to solve the crime, as he has said. I think he should hand it over to someone else to do a better job."