French Alps shooting: Massacre girl cowered under dead mother for eight hours

French police block the road leading to the car park. Picture: AFP
French police block the road leading to the car park. Picture: AFP
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A FOUR-year-old British girl has been found alive underneath the bodies of her family hours after a gunman opened fire on their British-registered car in the French Alps.

• Dead man identified locally as Saad al-Hilli

Annecy is located in eastern France, near the Swiss border

Annecy is located in eastern France, near the Swiss border

• Second girl found injured on road

• Cyclist killed described by police as being in the wrong place at the wrong time

• Older woman had Swedish passport - French police

A FOUR-YEAR-OLD girl British cowered under her dead mother’s skirt for eight hours after three members of her family were shot in the head while they were on holiday in France.

Police continued to probe the killings yesterday, saying the murders were an act of “extreme savagery”.

Saad al-Hilli, 50, from Clay-gate, Surrey, his wife, Ikbal, and his mother-in-law were found dead in their BMW by a British cyclist on Wednesday – each with a bullet in the head.

The couple’s youngest daughter Zeena, four, hid for eight hours before being discovered by police.

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The cyclist, who served in the RAF, arrived on the scene to see the girl’s sister, Zainab, seven, stumble out of the car and collapse in the road in front of him.

She had been violently beaten, suffering contusions to the skull, and had a bullet wound in the shoulder.

The cyclist put her in the recovery position and called for help.

He then walked towards the car and found another cyclist, Frenchman Sylvain Mollier, 45, who had also been murdered and was lying beside the vehicle.

He smashed a window to turn the engine off and discovered the three other victims. There were brake marks on the road.

Mr Mollier, a father of three, had passed the British man just minutes earlier and police believe he may have been murdered because he was a witness.

He was identified after his wife became concerned he had not returned from his bike ride and went to a police station with a photograph.

The motive for the massacre remained a mystery last night, with police on both sides of the Channel conducting inquiries.

Mr al-Hilli ran a small company called Shtech, which dealt with computer-aided mechanical design work, mainly in the civil aviation industry.

Friends in the UK said he was not a political person, though one said the family had moved to Britain from Iraq in the 1970s after their mechanical engineering business was looked upon “unfavourably” by Saddam Hussein’s Baath party.

Another friend said Mr al-Hilli had told him something potentially relevant to the police investigation before he went to France on holiday. He said he would pass the information on to the authorities.

Police sources in France say one line of inquiry is that the family were killed after stumbling upon a drugs deal. There have been recent incidents of gangs doing business in rural spots such as the Combe d’Ire forest car park, near Chevaline, where the bodies were found.

The other theory is that they were killed by armed robbers.

Prosecutor Eric Maillaud said that when officers arrived, the scene was like something out of a film: 15 cartridges were found around the BMW and there were signs a “very large number” of shots had been fired. The firearm used is believed to have been a semi-automatic pistol.

Mr Maillaud described the killings as “an act of extreme savagery” and said: “They had all been shot through the centre of the forehead.”

Both the children are in hospital under police protection. Zainab has been transferred to Grenoble, where she was in a medically induced coma yesterday, although police say her condition is no longer life-threatening. Police called her survival “a miracle”.

“There was clearly a determination to leave no witnesses alive at the scene,” a source said.

Police are facing criticism for taking eight hours to find the younger girl. Zeena was discovered, “terrorised, motionless, in the midst of the bodies”, only after fellow campers at Le Solitaire du Lac told officers the family had two children.

“When our detectives went into the car they discovered a little girl, who was frozen stiff and uninjured,” Mr Maillaud said

“She stayed beside her mother’s body for almost eight hours, and had not moved during all this time.

“She spoke a little in English, saying she had heard noises and shouting, but did not say any more.

“She is only four years old. She was taken away and put under protection. She could not tell the difference between the good guys and bad guys.

“She began to smile and speak in English when the policeman took her in his arms and pulled her out of the car.”

He added: “Can you imagine the state of the young girl, four years old, has spent eight hours under a body that was not moving?”

Mr al-Hilli, who was born in Baghdad, was found dead in the driver’s seat, with his wife and her mother, who had a Swedish passport, slumped in the back.

Witnesses in the nearby village of Chevaline told police they saw two cars speeding through the forest at around the time the murders happened.

Benoit Vinnemann, who is leading the gendarmerie investigation, said: “The main witness is a cyclist who discovered the massacre who said he was overtaken by another cyclist on the road leading to the car park where the shooting took place.

“Arriving there, he found the cyclist on the ground with gunshot wounds near a car.

“In the vehicle, a man and two women have also been shot.

“On the other side of the car, a child was alive.

“He placed her in the recovery position until help arrived. She had been very badly beaten.”

Chevaline mayor Didier Berthollet said locals were “shell-shocked”. He added: “We have never seen such horror on our doorstep before.”

A police source told France’s Europe 1 radio: “Current theories are either that the family were the victims of an armed robbery or that they disturbed a drug deal taking place.”

Investigators said no weapon had been found and no arrests had been made. It was also unclear if the shootings had been carried out by one killer or a number of people.

The actions of the British cyclist were praised by Mr Maillaud. “He had a strong command of his nerves. We must welcome his action and congratulate him,” he said.

A Foreign Office spokesman said: “We are aware of this tragic incident near Lake Annecy.

“We are working with the French authorities to confirm British nationals were involved. We are working on the assumption that they are.

“Our thoughts are with the friends and families of those involved.”