A father who abducted his three sons from a foster home may have smuggled them out of Britain in the back of a van, police believe.
Imran Safi, 26, is thought to have taken the boys, Bilal, six, Ebrar, five, and Yaseen, three, overseas after receiving support from a network of associates to help him evade capture.
The Afghan-born dad allegedly kidnapped his children at knifepoint from their foster carer’s garden more than six weeks ago.
All three brothers were playing in the garden while their foster carer was inside the house in Coulsdon, south London, when they were taken on August 20, detectives said.
Investigators believe Safi may have received some “insider” information to help him track the children at the foster home.
Safi’s wife, Lubna, 25, and other relatives are among 16 Afghan men and women to have been arrested and released as part of the Scotland Yard inquiry.
The arrests took place in the Croydon area, in Ilford, east London, and in Bristol.
One of Safi’s uncles was questioned at Heathrow Airport after arriving on a flight from Kabul.
Safi’s brother-in-law, Ali Safi, 37, said he did not know where the dad took the siblings.
He said Safi was wrong in kidnapping the children, but claimed he had acted “out of desperation”.
“He did the wrong thing by taking the law into his own hands, but in his eyes the law and everyone else had failed him, so he could not stop what he was doing out of love for his children,” he said.
It is believed the abduction happened just a few days before the children were due to be adopted.
Ali Safi said he had last heard from his brother-in-law on the morning of the abduction, when he told him to look after himself and his wife Lubna.
The brother-in-law added: “We had no idea what he was planning.”
At the end of August, police located a car linked to the disappearance of the boys and are trying to identify a man that was seen in the vehicle.
Police believe Safi and the children could now be overseas, according to The Sunday Times.
They are appealing for more information about the abduction and what happened after it.
Commander Bas Javid, who is overseeing the investigation, said there was no evidence that Safi – who has indefinite leave to remain in the UK – had used official documents to go abroad.
“We think they travelled through more covert means – whether it’s in the back of a lorry or a van,” Javid said.
He pointed out that vehicles going through some border controls were subjected only to “random checks”.
“So there’s a high possibility that the kids were in a vehicle and not exposed to view,” he said.
“The borders across Europe are fairly open.”
Nobody has been charged, but the Met have released an image of a new suspect.
The man, described as bearded and wearing a striped jumper, was seen in the passenger seat of a red Nissan Qashqai, at the time the children were taken.
“He may hold valuable information as to where the children and Imran are,” Cdr Javid said.
“We appreciate that the image is not the clearest quality but we still need people to really study it and see if the man in the picture is one that they may recognise.
“I can’t imagine how distressing this whole situation has been for the three young boys, who have been taken away from their safe environment, and our efforts to locate Imran Safi continues.”
The search for the three children and their father continues.