By Vincent Fribault
CHEVALINE, France (Reuters) - A girl aged four spent eight hours cowering under the body of one of three adults, thought to be her parents and grandmother, after they were shot dead in a BMW car in the French Alps.
The child, apparently on a family camping holiday from Britain, was found by police unhurt shortly before midnight on Wednesday huddled on the floor behind the front seats of the car, hidden under the legs and skirt of one of the dead women.
A second girl of about eight, thought to be her sister, had been found earlier with serious injuries having been shot in the shoulder and severely beaten on the head.
A local cyclist was also found shot dead at the scene on a mountain road near the village of Chevaline, close to the Annecy lake and the Swiss border. The man "just happened to be riding by" at the time of the attack, officials said.
"I do not call this the work of professionals. I call it an act of enormous savagery," public prosecutor Eric Maillaud, who was visibly shaken, told a news conference in the town of Annecy, southeastern France. Police had no idea of the motive, he said.
A source close to the investigation told Reuters the owner of the UK-registered car, who was found dead at the wheel, was Iraqi-born Briton Saad al-Hilli from Surrey, south England. The cyclist, a young father, was Sylvain Mollier, officials said.
Police arrived at the scene at about 4 p.m. (1000 EDT) on Wednesday - shortly after the attack - after another cyclist, a British former air force officer, raised the alarm after coming across the car with its engine still running and the older girl stumbled out from behind it and collapsed at his feet.
The younger girl, too terrified to move or make a sound, went unnoticed for eight hours because investigators did not open the car doors in order not to disturb any evidence pending the arrival of forensic experts from Paris.
They finally opened up the vehicle after a man at the campsite who had met the group alerted police to the fact there was a second girl in the party.
"She started smiling and speaking English as soon as a gendarme from the Chambery search brigade took her in his arms and got her out of the car," Maillaud said.
The cyclist and two of the adults in the car were killed by gunshots to the head, Maillaud said. About 15 bullet casings were found at the scene and the weapon may have been an automatic pistol, he added.
Both children are in hospital in Grenoble under police protection. The older girl, who is in a stable condition, had been placed in an artificial coma pending a second operation following emergency surgery overnight. "She was struck very violently and apparently has skull fractures," Maillaud said.
The British cyclist who called police said he had been overtaken on the road, shortly before the killing, by the cyclist found dead at the scene.
Maillaud said the car's owner was a 50-year-old Iraqi-born man with British nationality, but would not confirm the name given by the source who spoke to Reuters.
The prosecutor declined to confirm that the dead women were the girls' mother and grandmother but said it seemed the whole group were relatives holidaying together in a caravan at a nearby campsite.
(Additional reporting by Catherine Lagrange in Lyon; Writing by Brian Love; Editing by Catherine Bremer and Pravin Char)
(This story was refiled to add dropped words in the first paragraph)