x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Four shot to death at French beauty spot

France is rocked by the grisly murders in a grisly crime that prosecutors say "surpasses TV fiction".

MARSEILLE, FRANCE // A four-year-old girl was found cowering beneath her mother's body eight hours after four people were shot dead at a beauty spot in the French Alps.

The girl's sister, aged seven or eight, was critically ill yesterday and under armed guard in hospital.

She had been shot at least once and also beaten and was at one stage said to have died, but was last night reported to be out of immediate danger.

French prosecutors said the dead appeared to be the girls' parents, an elderly relative and a French cyclist whose body was found near their British-registered BMW car. He was shot in the middle of the head, as were the girls' father and the older woman.

The cyclist was Sylvain Mollier, a father-of-three in his 40s who lived locally.

The girls' father, was named in British media reports as an Iraqi-born businessman, Saad Al Hilli, 50, the company secretary of an aerospace technology business who lived in the town of Claygate in Surrey, south of London. His wife, Iqbal, whom he met in Dubai, where she practised as a dentist, and their daughters are four-year-old Zehab and Zaina, who is three or four years older.

The family had been on holiday at Le Solitaire du Lac, a campsite at Saint Jorioz close to the shores of Lake Annecy and the Italian and Swiss borders, an area highly popular with French and foreign tourists.

Other Britons staying at the site reported them missing on Wednesday as news spread that bodies had been discovered by another cyclist, a British former serviceman who alerted the emergency services by mobile phone.

One report said fellow campers told police there were two children in the family, leading to the belated check on the interior of the bullet-ridden car.

Fifteen bullet casings from an automatic pistol were recovered from the area around the BMW.

Lieutenant Colonel Benoit Vinnemann from the French gendarmerie said that at the present "no hypothesis is ruled out".

"The scene is dramatic ... and greatly surpasses televised fiction," he said of the grisly crime.

There appeared to be no immediate clues to help investigators decide whether the family was specifically targeted or the victims of would-be robbers or a deranged gunman.

Prosecutors ruled out a link with an attempted armed carjacking 75 kilometres away on the same day.

The shooting of the cyclist, and the apparent attempt to murder the elder girl, Zaina, suggested determination on the part of the killer or killer to ensure no witnesses survived.

In the event, she may have vital evidence about the incident.

It is not clear what her younger, uninjured sister will be able to tell police.

However, the fact that she lay undiscovered for so long, even as the area was cordoned off and impromptu media briefings took place nearby, attracted critical comment, especially in Britain.

French police said the child had not been spotted at first and that they then had to await the arrival of forensic experts from Paris before they could open the car doors.

Eric Maillaud, the Annecy public prosecutor, told reporters: "As soon as the first forensics began we were able to open the vehicle, and it was at that moment we discovered the little girl that nobody had seen, because she hadn't moved, completely in shock and completely frozen."

The first police officers to arrive at the scene had been instructed not to enter the car, or to move the bodies, to avoid compromising the scientific evidence gathering.

Mr Maillaud said the girl "started smiling and speaking English as soon as a gendarme [police officer] … took her in his arms and got her out of the car".

He said she was "probably terrified, completely immobile among the bodies … she had heard the noises, the cries, but couldn't say more".

Her father's body was slumped in the driver's seat of the car. The two women were also in the car but Zaina was found outside the car. "She was struck very violently and apparently has skull fractures," Mr Maillaud said.

Police are investigating reports that a vehicle was seen speeding away from the crime scene at about the time that the second cyclist spotted the bodies.

The killings are the latest in a series of crimes of extreme violence to have shocked France.

In April last year, a woman and her four children were shot dead at their home in the western city of Nantes. No trace has been found of her husband, Xavier Dupont de Ligonnès, suspected of carrying out the killings.

In Marseille, France's second city, 14 people have been killed so far this year in what police and prosecutors have linked to score-settling gang feuds.

And in Toulouse and Montauban, a French-Algerian gunman, Mohamed Merah, who claimed links with Al Qaeda, killed seven people, including three children outside a Jewish school before being shot dead by police. Speaking in London, France's president Francois Hollande vowed yesterday that "everything will be done to find the killer or killers".

"There is a very strong bond between France and Britain and we will do everything to find them."

He added: "We do not know the motives behind this incident."

 

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting from Reuters and Agence France-Presse