CHEVALINE, France (AP) — Immobilized with fear, a 4-year-old British girl huddled for eight hours beneath the legs of her slain mother in a car filled with corpses on a remote Alpine road — all while French investigators stood nearby, unaware she was there.
The stunning discovery Thursday of the girl, apparently unharmed, heightened the drama around a mysterious shooting rampage that left four adults dead and a 7-year-old girl hospitalized with bullet wounds and skull fractures in the French Alps.
The reason for the slayings, in a wooded area near the eastern village of Chevaline, remains unclear.
All the bodies were found in or near a BMW that prosecutors say belonged to a British family vacationing at a campground on the shores of Lake Annecy, a popular retreat in the French Alps. The owners of the campground told investigators the victims included two parents and a grandmother.
French authorities struggled to explain why the 4-year-old wasn’t discovered earlier and was left for hours alone in the back seat of a car with the corpses.
Police arrived Wednesday to find a man’s body in the front seat and two women in the back, and another dead man near a bicycle with no known ties to the other victims nearby. That fourth victim was a French cyclist who apparently stumbled across the grisly scene, police said.
Investigators identified the driver of the car as Saad al Hilli, a British citizen from a London suburb who was born in Baghdad in 1962, according to the Sipa news agency. Police in Surrey, a largely suburban county southwest of London, said they are talking with French authorities about the case.
The 7-year-old girl was discovered near the car with bullet wounds and skull fractures and was hospitalized, Annecy prosecutor Eric Maillaud said.
The names of the children and other victims were not released, and their relationships to each other remain unclear.
A second cyclist who discovered all the bodies alerted authorities around 4 p.m. Wednesday; the car was under guard until midnight, when special investigators arrived from the Paris area and found the girl.
‘‘We discovered a little 4-year-old girl that no one noticed earlier because she wasn’t moving. Probably terrified, she was completely immobile among the bodies. She was later examined and she is doing OK,’’ Maillaud said.
Maillaud said as soon as investigators opened the door, the girl emerged, smiled and reached out her arms; she spoke English but couldn’t describe what had happened and was taken into police care.
‘‘She is in a hospital but her life is not threatened despite going through a tragedy by losing her family in such atrocious conditions,’’ he said.
Several rescue workers had all apparently peered inside the car.
‘‘Firefighters, technicians, doctors looked inside the car through the windows but they didn’t see the little girl. The child, terrorized, never moved. She stayed beneath her mother’s legs,’’ Lt. Col. Benoit Vinnemann said, according to BFM-TV.
The Frenchman found dead next to the car had no ties to the British family; he was identified only after his wife reported him missing.
‘‘A woman was worried because her husband went to cycle in this area and didn’t come back home,’’ Maillaud said. ‘‘He was just cycling in that area and got killed along with this British family.’’
The French newspaper Le Dauphine identified the dead biker as Sylvain Mollier, a 40-year-old father of three on paternity leave from a job at a factory linked to nuclear manufacturer Areva.
About 15 bullet casings were found near the car, Maillaud said.
Police cordoned off the area, combing the forest for potential perpetrators in searches that continued Thursday.
Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague said there had been a ‘‘terrible, tragic shooting in France,’’ in a message posted to his personal Twitter account.
‘‘Our thoughts are with the young girls who survived and the family,’’ he wrote.