By The Associated Press
ANNECY, France (AP) — French authorities struggled Thursday to explain why no one found a 4-year-old girl for eight hours at a blood-strewn crime scene as she huddled in a car under the skirt of a corpse – apparently her dead mother or grandmother.
The stunning discovery Thursday of the girl, apparently unharmed, heightened the drama around a mysterious shooting rampage in the French Alps that left four adults dead and a 7-year-old girl hospitalized after being shot and brutally beaten.
The reason for the slayings remained unclear a day after a cyclist came across the corpses in a wooded area near the mountain village of Chevaline. It took on increasingly international ramifications, with links emerging Thursday tying the slain family to Britain, Iraq and Sweden.
Prosecutor Eric Maillaud said investigators were searching for possible perpetrators and studying all possibilities, including a score-settling attack or simply that the family was “in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
The bodies of a man and two women were found shot to death in a BMW and the body of an unrelated male French cyclist was found on the ground nearby. Maillaud described a methodical killing, with three victims shot in the head.
The two girls, who police said were sisters, were put under police care. The prosecutor warned there may still be a killer or killers on the loose seeking to “get rid of” witnesses to the “scene of immense savagery.”
At a news conference, authorities tried to explain how the 4-year-old went unnoticed.
“The girl was found totally immobile in fact on the floor of the vehicle, behind the front passenger-side seat, under the legs – under the skirt – of one of the women who were killed, around a large travel bag, totally invisible and silent, which explains why no one saw her before,” Maillaud said.
Maillaud said the car was registered to a British man born in Baghdad in 1962. He said the man, who had moved to Britain in 2002, and his family had been vacationing in France since August, camping on nearby Lake Annecy. The driver was identified by the Sipa news agency as Saad al Hilli, a resident of a London suburb.
The al Hilli’s camper caravan was covered in red police tape Thursday. A British retiree in the neighboring campsite said he was considering leaving after seeing the taped-up caravan, and hearing what had happened to the family that slept in it earlier this week.
Sky News, citing neighbors in the British village of Claygate, identified al Hilli’s wife as Iqbal, the 7-year-old as Zehab and the 4-year-old as Zeinab.
Sweden confirmed that one of the victims was Swedish. French authorities found a Swedish passport that appears to be that of an older woman slain in the car, born in 1938, as well as an Iraqi passport.
The French cyclist found near the car was identified as Sylvain Mollier, a man in his 40s from nearby Grenoble who police believe had no relation to the British family. His wife had called police after Mollier failed to return from a ride.
The bodies were found just before 4 p.m. Wednesday by a British cyclist who has a house in the region. Although investigators were on the site for hours, the 4-year-old girl was only found after midnight.
One explanation investigators offered was that the man who discovered the bodies and the rescuers he summoned concentrated their attention on the 7-year-old who had severe injuries.
Maillaud insisted that police at the scene had no reason to suspect that another child was present – and said police were trying to keep the crime scene intact to allow forensics and other experts to arrive from Paris.
“When dealing with such a big crime scene the main thing … is to make sure this investigation is in no way compromised,” he said.
Police at the press conference in Annecy said helicopters using thermal scanners did not detect the 4-year-old in the car, perhaps because her body heat was concealed by the women’s bodies she was hiding under.
It was neighbors at the campsite who alerted investigators that the missing family had two daughters not just one, Maillaud said. That was around 11 p.m.
Maillaud said as soon as investigators opened the car door, the girl emerged, smiled and reached out. She spoke English, said she had heard cries, but couldn’t describe what had happened. She was doing fine physically and will be questioned later, he said.
“She quickly asked where her family was,” he said. “We are hoping for more information from her sister that will help the investigators to move forward.”
Later Thursday, hearses under police escort and a tow truck hauling the BMW left the area Thursday afternoon. Autopsies were planned for Friday.
“We strictly don’t know why these people were killed,” Maillaud said, adding that about 15 bullet casings were found near the car. “What is certain is that someone wanted to kill.”
Police vehicles barricaded the road about 3 kilometers (1.5 miles) from where the bodies were found and kept searching the surrounding forest Thursday.
Britain’s ambassador to France Peter Ricketts said British diplomats were trying to reach other family members to have them come to France and support the two girls but that none had yet been located.
He declined to say whether the father’s Iraqi ties may have been a factor in the killings.
“All I can say is that we are doing everything you would imagine that we would do for a small girl who has been deeply traumatized in a foreign country where she doesn’t speak the language. We are doing everything we can for her,” he added.
British diplomats have not yet been allowed access to the older girl.
Al Hilli’s accountant said they had spoken the day before the family left for France and that his mother-in-law was probably the older woman in the car, according to Britain’s Press Association.
Julian Stedman described al Hilli as a “hard-working family man who loved his children. … He never talked about what he did in Iraq.”
Al Hilli’s company, Shtech, does computer-aided mechanical design work, mainly in the civil aviation industry, he said. Public records identified al Hilli as a mechanical engineer and his LinkedIn page described him as an aerospace consultant.
Neighbor Jack Saltman said that the victim had appeared concerned and asked him to keep a check on their home. “It may be totally irrelevant, but given that it might not be, I’ve told the police,” he told Britain’s Sky News.
French President Francois Hollande, who met Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron in London on Thursday, promised that French authorities “will do our utmost to find the perpetrators, to find the reasons behind the event.”
Cameron said consular staff will do all they can to help the girls and “are working very hard … to find out what happened in this very tragic case. Obviously the faster we can get to the bottom of what happened, the better.”