ANNECY, France -- French authorities struggled Thursday to explain why no one found a four-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 seven-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 four-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 Hillis' camper caravan was covered in red police tape Thursday. A British retiree in the neighbouring 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 neighbours in the British village of Claygate, identified al Hilli's wife as Iqbal, the seven-year-old as Zehab and the four-year-old as Zeinab. Sweden confirmed 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 four-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 seven-year-old who had severe injuries.
Maillaud insisted police at the scene had no reason to suspect 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.
Al Hilli's accountant said they had spoken the day before the family left for France and 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.
Neighbour Jack Saltman said 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.
-- The Associated Press