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An entrance of the French southern Alps village of Le Vernet. Image Credit: AFP

Marseille: French investigators have found the "bones" of a toddler who went missing last summer in a tiny Alpine village and are working to determine how he died, a prosecutor said Sunday.

The discovery is the first major breakthrough in the case of two-and-a-half-year-old Emile, who vanished on July 8 last year while staying with his grandparents.

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Two neighbours last saw him in the late afternoon walking alone on a street in Le Vernet, at an altitude of 1,200 metres (4,000 feet) in the French Alps.

"On Saturday, the police was informed of the discovery of bones near the hamlet of Le Vernet," prosecutor Jean-Luc Blachon said.

Genetic testing allowed them "to conclude on Sunday that they were the bones of the child Emile," he added.

The prosecutor did not give a cause of death, but said that forensic investigators were continuing to analyse the bones.

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A card with the inscription reading "For the little Emile and his family" next to a portrait of Emile. Image Credit: AFP

"The police is deploying means to carry out additional searches in the area where they were found," he added.

A source close to the case said a walker had spotted the remains.

When he disappeared, Emile had just arrived the day before to stay with his maternal grandparents in their secondary home for the holidays.

The little boy, barely 90 centimetres (35 inches) tall, was wearing a yellow T-shirt, white shorts and tiny hiking shoes, a call for witnesses at the time said.

Massive search

A massive on-the-ground search involving dozens of police officers and soldiers, sniffer dogs, a helicopter and drones failed to find the little boy in July.

A prosecutor said after several days it was unlikely such a young child would have survived in the summer heat.

An initial probe into a missing person soon became a criminal investigation into a possible abduction. The possibilities of an accident or a fall have also remained open.

Police on Thursday returned to the village, cordoning off the area and summoning 17 people including family members, neighbours and witnesses to re-enact the last moments before he went missing to try to solve the mystery.

Drones flew overhead in the drizzle to capture footage of the re-enactment, but there was no news of any major discovery after the exercise.

Emile's mother and father, devout Catholics, were absent on the day of his disappearance.

Until now some media had focused on the boy's grandfather.

Emile's grandfather was questioned in a 1990s case into alleged violence and sexual aggression at a private Catholic school.

But a source close to the case said his possible involvement in the disappearance had always been examined to "the same degree" as other hypotheses.

In late November, a day before Emile would have turned three, his parents published a call for answers in a Christian weekly.

"Tell us where he is," they wrote.