The horror and mystery of the Annecy killings

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

A British family on holiday, an Iraqi connection, four dead, two children under police guard

Annecy

At the foot of the 3km climb of the Route de la Combe d'Ire above Lake Annecy, a sign in French, German and English warns: "dangerous road".

Up that track on Wednesday afternoon, there drove a British-registered BMW carrying a British-Iraqi-Swedish family of five. Soon afterwards two cyclists started on the climb. Near the top, the second cyclist, a local French man, overtook the other, a Briton.

When the British cyclist reached the dirt car-park at the top of the track, he found a scene of unbelievable butchery. A girl of about seven or eight years old staggered towards him and then collapsed. She had head injuries, inflicted by a blunt instrument, and a bullet wound in her shoulder.

The cyclist who had overtaken him minutes before lay dead, shot in the head. The BMW was standing with its motor still running. The British cyclist, a former RAF officer who has a holiday home near by, placed the injured girl in the recovery position on her side. He telephoned the emergency services.

He smashed the driver's side window of the BMW to cut the ignition and discovered within what a senior French investigator called a "scene of immense savagery". A man and two women had been shot dead, two of them in the head.

He did not notice – and neither did French security forces for an unbelievable eight hours – that a girl of four was cowering, alive and unharmed, at the feet of her dead mother.

Last night, revulsion, mystery and official embarrassment swirled around the murders in one of the most popular tourist areas in France. Some French officials said the slaughter resembled a targeted, professional killing. Others said that the massacre of the family was too savage to be professional.

The car was owned by an Iraqi-born British citizen, Saad Al-Hilli, 50, who had been camping with his family near by since Monday. British officials are satisfied that Mr Al-Hilli was the man found in the driver's seat with his head smashed by a close-range shot from an automatic pistol.

The two women found dead in the back seat of the car are thought to have been his wife, Ikbal, and her mother. Swedish and Iraqi passports were found on the body of the older woman. French officials insist that her face and that of the male victim were too badly damaged to allow formal identification until DNA tests are performed on samples flown from Britain today.

The French authorities also struggled to explain how the four-year-old, believed to be Mr Al-Hilli's daughter Zeena, was found alive inside the car after so much time had elapsed – 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 top-level, crime-scene investigation unit travelled by car and helicopter from Paris. She was discovered only after other campers told investigators that the missing family had two children.

The older girl, Zeitab, aged seven or eight, was saved by the prompt action of the British cyclist. She was in an artificially-induced coma at a hospital in Grenoble last night. Her life was said to be no longer in danger after a series of lengthy operations. The smaller girl was also in hospital under surveillance in the company of a senior British diplomat.

The murdered cyclist, named as Sylvain Mollier, 45, a local man who had three children, was also shot in the head at point-blank range. He is believed to have been silenced after stumbling on the killings.

Sources in the investigation told the local French media yesterday that the murders – near the village of Chevaline, 10 miles from Annecy – resembled an "assassination rather than a robbery which went wrong". No shots were heard, suggesting that a silencer may have been used.

The public prosecutor for the Annecy region, Eric Maillaud, was asked at a press conference yesterday whether he believed that he was dealing with "professional killers".

He replied: "To talk of a professional killing is conjecture. I would rather speak of savagery. But it is clear that whoever carried out this attack set out to kill."

He went on to say that the two small survivors were "under police protection" in case the killers attempted to silence "witnesses that they had believed, until now, not to exist".

Mr Maillaud faced hostile questioning, from both French and British journalists, on the failure of the 60 gendarmes on the scene to notice that there was small girl alive inside the car for eight hours. He said that it was crucial that the car should be "sealed off" to prevent the "pollution" of evidence which might help to catch the killers.

Heat-seeking equipment had been used to check for survivors but did not pick up the presence of the child curled up at her dead mother's feet below the back seat.

"She remained prostrate beneath the skirts of her loved ones in a jumble of bags for nearly eight hours. She did not move in all that time," Mr Maillaud said. She was found only after campers at the Solitaire du Lac campsite beside Lake Annecy told investigators that they had seen two children picking apples with their mother earlier that day.

Mr Maillaud said that 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".

"She began to smile and speak in English to the woman gendarme who took her in her arms after she was rescued from the car … She told us she heard screams and noises but she can't say much more."

Earlier, in a radio interview, Mr Maillaud said that the little girl had "asked for her mummy and soon realised that her mummy was no longer there".

Investigators found 15 cartridge cases scattered around the car and several bullet impacts on the windows but not on the body-work. The rounds are believed to have been fired from an automatic pistol or several automatic pistols.

Mr Maillaud said that he hoped the two little survivors would be able, eventually, to help the authorities to piece together what happened on the Route de la Combe d'Ire. "At the moment, we are confronted with a crime of immense savagery," he said. "As for why these people were killed at this place and at this time, there is, so far, no way to answer that."

Timeline: Death in the Alps

5 Sept, 3.48pm A British cyclist calls the French police after finding three people shot dead in a car and the body of a French cyclist, also shot dead, near Lake Annecy. The man first saw a young girl collapse and went to her aid before contacting the emergency services. He then approached the bullet-ridden BMW, finding a dead man in the driver's seat and two dead women in the back.

7.30pm The first reports emerge, quoting a French official who says five people are dead. The official confirms the seven-year-old girl was found alive.

9.25pm Annecy prosecutor Eric Maillaud says no weapon was found near the scene, which was like something seen "in a film".

6 Sept, 5am Officials confirm the victims were a British family. They also reveal a four-year-old girl was uninjured inside the BMW.

6am Mr Maillaud says the four-year-old was discovered "frozen still" under dead bodies during a forensic examination of the car, eight hours after the initial discovery. He says the gun used in the killings was believed to be a semi-automatic pistol. He adds "a very large number" of shots were fired and 15 bullet cartridges were found.

12.30pm It emerges that the seven-year-old girl was beaten on the head and had brain injuries. Mr Maillaud says the four-year-old was spotted late because police sealed off the area and waited for back-up from Paris. The dead cyclist is named locally as Sylvain Mollier.

1.50pm The dead man in the car is named by French media as Saad al-Hilli, from Claygate, near Esher in Surrey. Mr Al-Hilli, in his 50s, was the driver of the BMW.

2.50pm Three of the four victims, including Mr Al-Hilli, were shot in the middle of the head in an act of "gross savagery", Mr Maillaud says.

The prosecutor reveals that Mr Al-Hilli was originally from Iraq and held British citizenship. It emerges that Swedish and Iraqi passports had also been recovered, along with the driver's British passport.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Young Winstone: His ‘tough-guy’ image is a misconception
people
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
News
Outspoken: Alexander Fury, John Rentoul, Ellen E Jones and Katy Guest
newsFrom the Scottish referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
Arts and Entertainment
L to R: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Captain America (Chris Evans) & Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Avengers Assemble
film
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Sport
Tim Sherwood raises his hand after the 1-0 victory over Stoke
footballFormer Tottenham boss leads list of candidates to replace Neil Warnock
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
Voices
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers
voicesIt has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
News
i100
News
Caplan says of Jacobs: 'She is a very collaborative director, and gives actors a lot of freedom. She makes things happen.'
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015