THE seven-year-old girl who was shot and beaten during an attack in which her parents were killed has regained consciousness in a French hospital with relatives at her side, but has not yet been questioned by police.
Zainab al-Hilli is viewed by police as the ''key witness'' to the shootings last Wednesday in which her mother, father and grandmother and a passing cyclist were gunned down at a tourist spot in the French Alps near Lake Annecy.
The chief prosecutor leading the inquiry, Eric Maillaud, said: ''She has been in a coma and is under sedatives and cannot be questioned for now. The members of her family who came are by her side. Without doubt, it is their responsibility to inform her of the death of her family.
''We hope that the age of seven is the age of reason and that she will be able to provide descriptions about the number of people, whether men or women, the colour of their clothes, and who could have committed this.''
Zainab has a fractured skull from a suspected pistol-whipping as well as a gunshot wound to the shoulder. She has been under armed guard in intensive care in hospital at Grenoble and has undergone surgery.
Mr Maillaud described her survival as a miracle. She will be questioned by police who specialise in child witnesses.
Her sister Zeena, four, who was found cowering under her mother's legs in the back of the family car eight hours after the bodies were discovered, has flown back to Britain accompanied by relatives, police and a social worker.
Mr Maillaud said Zeena had identified family members and described the ''fury'' and ''terror'' of the attack to French police. He said she had heard shots and cries but was unable to advance the inquiry. ''The most important thing is to get her back to her family.''
Last Wednesday, Iraqi-born Saad al-Hilli, his wife Iqbal, her mother Suhaila al-Allaf and passing cyclist Sylvain Mollier, 45, were gunned down by assassins who put two bullets into each person's head, leading to speculation of a professional hit.
A builder working at a house near where the family was killed said he saw their car pass but did not hear any shots fired.
Laurent Fillion-Robin told The Times: ''You do hear shooting from the hunters sometimes, but I didn't hear anything that afternoon. Perhaps [the killers] had a silencer.''
Meanwhile, a childhood friend of the Hilli brothers has revealed a letter that victim Saad al-Hilli wrote in which he savaged his older brother Zaid, 53, a month after the death of their father, and hinted at a dispute over inheritance. He wrote: ''Zaid and I do not communicate any more as he is another control freak and tried a lot of underhanded things even when my father was alive. He tried to take control of father's assets.''
Police are also investigating Saad al-Hilli's work as an aeronautical design engineer for Surrey Satellite Technology, a company which helped to develop Britain's first military surveillance satellite. A colleague, Derek Reed, said he did not think his job would have put Mr Hilli at risk.