By Vincent Fribault
CHEVALINE, France (Reuters) - A four-year-old British girl spent eight hours cowering among the bodies of three adults, thought to be her mother, father and grandmother, who were shot dead in a 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 French 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, a young father who lived in the area named Sylvain Mollier, "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.
The owner of the UK-registered car, who was found dead at the wheel, was Iraqi-born Briton Saad al-Hilli from Surrey, southern England, a source close to the investigation told Reuters.
Police arrived at the scene at about 4 p.m. (1400 GMT) 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 French cyclist found dead at the scene.
"LOVELY LITTLE GIRLS"
Police stood guard outside the al-Hilli's detached, half-timbered family home in Claygate, a small, quiet village on the southwestern outskirts of London.
Neighbour Lorna Davy, whose children attend the same school as the two al-Hilli girls, described their parents as "chatty and involved with the community" and their daughters as "really lovely little girls."
"It seems incredible - my first thought was that they must just have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, but now it's hard to know what to think," Davy said.
Another neighbour, Jack Saltman, said al-Hilli was kind and helpful, and came to Britain from Iraq 20 years ago and had lived in the Claygate house for a decade.
"The two girls were adorable, they'd play together for hours and chat to me over the fence about their holidays and things," Saltman told Reuters.
"It's absolutely heartbreaking that this has happened."
(Additional reporting by Catherine Lagrange in Lyon and Alessandra Prentice in Claygate; Writing by Brian Love; Editing by Jon Hemming)