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British bomb squad searches Alps murder family home

A police officer carries out a box from the Hilli family home in Claygate, southeast England.

CLAYGATE/GRENOBLE: British army bomb disposal experts Monday examined suspicious items found at the home of a family murdered in the Alps but found that they were not hazardous.

Police evacuated neighbors in the commuter village of Claygate near London while the bomb squad checked what a source described as a “potentially explosive substance” before eventually giving the all clear.

The development was the latest twist in the killings of Iraqi-born Saad al-Hilli, his wife Ikbal and his mother-in-law in their car at a beauty spot near Annecy in southeastern France last Wednesday. A French cyclist was also killed in the attack.

Police have been searching the family home for days for clues to the killings and were Monday also spending a third day interviewing Hilli’s brother, Zaid al-Hilli, who has denied being embroiled in a property dispute with the dead man.

Surrey Police, the force which is cooperating with French detectives on the inquiry, said that it “can confirm that items found at an address this morning in Oaken Lane, Claygate, are not hazardous.”

“The items were found earlier today [Monday] when the search of the property was extended from the main building to outbuildings in the garden. A bomb disposal unit was called to the scene to carry out an assessment as a precautionary measure.”

A cordon surrounding the area was lifted and neighbors were allowed to return to their homes, but the Hilli family’s house and garden remains taped-off while the search continues, police said.

A British army Royal Logistics Corps bomb disposal van spent around two hours at the scene, an AFP photographer said.

In France, a source close to the investigation said that only one weapon, a 7.65mm automatic pistol that is believed to be relatively old-fashioned, was used in the shooting.

The revelation followed initial analysis of 25 spent cartridges discovered at the scene of the murder and bullets retrieved from the corpses of the four victims. The high number of shots fired at the scene had led to speculation that there might have been more than one shooter.

Meanwhile, the elder of Hilli’s two daughters – both of whom survived the attack – remained under sedation Monday and was unable to speak to investigators who hope that she can help them unravel the mystery.

Three women and a man arrived with a police escort at a French hospital to visit the 7-year-old Zainab al-Hilli, an AFP reporter said.

The four visitors to the hospital in Grenoble arrived around 1300 GMT Monday in a black Mercedes van and were escorted into the clinic by gendarmes. It was not immediately clear who the visitors were.

Zainab is recovering from a fractured skull and a bullet wound in the shoulder. Her 4-year-old sister Zeena survived the attack unscathed after hiding in the family car.

“When the doctors give us authorization we will be able to interview her [Zainab] in hospital but for the moment they are not allowing it,” Annecy prosecutor Eric Maillaud told AFP. “She was in an induced coma which she was brought out of Sunday but she remains under sedation. It is a normal process.”

Zeena, who lay motionless under her mother’s corpse for eight hours following Wednesday’s shooting, has also been unable to provide any significant information about the attack. She returned to Britain Sunday.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 11, 2012, on page 10.

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