PARIS — Apparently frozen in terror, a 4-year-old girl crouched silently for eight hours beneath her dead mother and grandmother in the back of a BMW on a forest road in the French Alps while just steps away investigators hunted for clues, officials said Thursday.
The discovery of the girl, alive and unharmed, around midnight Wednesday provided a glimmer of relief after a grisly attack in a wooded area near the village of Chevaline that left four people dead and a 7-year-old girl — thought to be the 4-year-old’s sister — hospitalized with a fractured skull. Three of the dead had been shot in the head, officials said.
Law enforcement officials said the BMW appeared to belong to a British family who had been vacationing at a campground near Lake Annecy, a picturesque area in the Alps not far from the Swiss and Italian borders.
Officials did not release the identities of the victims, but they said the car was registered to a man who was born in Baghdad in 1962 and had a British passport. Reuters, quoting an unidentified source, reported that the man was Saad al-Hilli of Surrey, in southern England. Investigators said they had uncovered no motive for the killings.
The bodies of the four victims were discovered Wednesday by a British tourist, a former air force officer who was cycling by and told the police that he had seen a seriously injured girl lying in front of the BMW, officials said. Officials said the BMW’s ignition was still on, suggesting that the attack had just occurred.
Investigators said the victims appeared to be a grandmother and two parents. The older woman, who French media reports said was a Swedish citizen, was found in the back of the car along with the mother. The man thought to be the father and the owner of the car was slumped over the steering wheel.
About 15 bullet cartridges from an automatic weapon were found on the ground outside. Officials said it appeared that the three had been targeted, rather than being the victims of indiscriminate firing into the car.
The fourth victim, a cyclist found near the car, has been identified by the French media as Sylvain Mollier, a French father of three in his 40s, who lived a few miles from the scene and was most likely biking by during the attack.
“It was clearly an act of extreme savagery, and it is obvious that whoever did this wanted to kill,’’ Eric Maillaud, the local prosecutor from Annecy, said at a news conference there.
Officials said that while they were still investigating the motive, one theory was that the killings were the result of an armed robbery gone awry, although they were not excluding the possibility of a family drama that had turned deadly. The police told the Europe 1 radio network that another theory held that the family had accidentally disturbed a drug deal.
Law enforcement officials said there were two attempted carjackings by an armed gang on the same night of the attack. They were investigating whether there was a link with the killings.
Investigators said they had initially missed seeing the 4-year-old girl because they did not open the bullet-riddled car door to avoid disturbing evidence while waiting for forensic specialists to arrive from Paris.
Maillaud told reporters that the crime scene was straight out of a film. Referring to the 4-year-old, he said she could not distinguish between ‘‘the good or the bad people.’’
‘‘She immediately smiled and began speaking in English when a gendarme took her in his arms and carried her out of the car,’’ he said. ‘‘She is in a hospital, but her life is not threatened, despite going through a tragedy by losing her family in such atrocious conditions.’’
The 7-year-old was airlifted to Grenoble University Hospital, according to French media reports. The two girls are under police protection, officials said. Autopsies on the dead are planned for Friday.
No arrests were immediately made, and no weapon was found. The British Foreign Office said it was also investigating the killings.