ANNECY, France: French authorities struggled Thursday to uncover the mystery of the “savage” slayings in the French region of Alps, which the prosecutor in charge of the case said bore the marks of a professional assassination.
They also tried 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, seemingly unharmed, heightened the drama around the mysterious shooting rampage 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.
Britain’s Ambassador to France Peter Ricketts said British diplomats were trying to reach 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.
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 had gone 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.
Sky News, citing neighbors in the British village of Claygate, identified 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 appeared 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 called police after Mollier had 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.
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 would 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. 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.”
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 Hilli as a “hard-working family man who loved his children ... He never talked about what he did in Iraq.”
Hilli’s company, Shtech, does computer-aided mechanical design work, mainly in the civil aviation industry, he said. Public records identified 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 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.