Terrified girl hid for hours under the skirt of her dead mother

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The Independent Online

Fear, confusion and official embarrassment gripped both sides of the Channel last night after the callous murder of four people in a remote woodland car park in one of France's most popular tourist areas.

The chief French investigator described it as "a crime of immense savagery" while other French officials said the slaughter, at the end of a three-mile track in the Alpine foothills, resembled a targeted, professional killing.

They refused to confirm the identity of three of the victims, found on Wednesday afternoon in a British-registered BMW estate car with its engine still running. But the car was owned by an Iraqi-born British citizen – Saad al-Hilli, 50, who had been camping with his family nearby since Monday – and British officials are satisfied that he was the man found in the driver's seat with his head smashed by a close-range shot from an automatic pistol.

Two women found dead in the back seat of the car are thought to have been his wife, Ikbal, and her mother. French officials said the older woman's face and that of the male victim were too badly damaged to allow formal identification until DNA tests are performed today.

The French authorities struggled to explain how a four-year-old girl, believed to be Mr Hilli's daughter, Zeena, was found inside the car almost eight hours after the shootings – unharmed but paralysed with fear.

The little girl had taken refuge beneath the skirts of her dead mother and grandmother. Local gendarmes did not spot her and sealed off the car while a crime-scene investigation unit travelled from Paris. She was discovered only after other campers told investigators that the family had two children.

Soon after the shootings, another girl, aged about eight, had been found wandering outside the car. Her skull had been fractured by "repeated blows" and she had a gunshot wound to her shoulder. She was in an artificially induced coma at a hospital in Grenoble last night, her life said to be no longer in danger. The younger girl was also in hospital.

A British cyclist – a retired RAF officer with a holiday home nearby – stumbled on the scene just before 4pm on Wednesday. Having placed the injured girl on her side in the recovery position – saving her life – he found another cyclist dead beside the car. He broke the driver's side window and found the three victims inside.

The murdered cyclist, Sylvain Mollier, 45, a local father-of-three, was also shot in the head at close range. He is believed to have stumbled on the massacre. A four-wheel-drive car was reported to have left the car park at high speed just before the ex-RAF officer arrived.

The public prosecutor for the Annecy region, Eric Maillaud, said he hoped the girls would be able, eventually, to help the authorities to piece together what happened.

The prosecutor said he believed the little girl lay petrified in the car after the gendarmes arrived because she "didn't know the good guys from the bad guys".