IT'S a murder that has devastated the tranquil island of Bute and sent shockwaves across the country.

Now the killing of six-year-old Alesha MacPhail is at the centre of a social media storm after right-wing commentators linked her death to Syrian refugees being given homes on the island.

As detectives hunting her killer issued a plea for islanders involved in the search to come forward, the tragic death was being used to further the cause of the far-right.

Former Apprentice contestant Katie Hopkins tweeted two separate newspaper cuttings, one showing an increase in sexual crimes in Argyll and Bute, and another about Syrian refugees moving to Rothesay.

The former reality TV star, who thrives on being controversial, seemed to be suggesting the Syrians were involved in Alesha’s murder.

She tweeted: “For an island with close to zero crime, there has been a recent disturbing trend on the Isle of Bute, Scotland.” 

Police Scotland subsequently stated that social media speculation had been "both mislead and inaccurate".

Other members of social media from across the world made similar points, with many saying outright that the murder was committed by the “peaceful religion of Islam”.

The online abuse follows the decision to house 24 Syrian families fleeing the daily threat of death and persecution on the island in 2015.

But Zoe Holliday, co-ordinator of the Refugee Survival Trust, said: “The recent suggestion there is a link between Syrian families being resettled on Argyll and Bute and an increase in sexual assaults over the past year is without foundation and seriously misleading. 

“It is also true to say that over the past year since the Syrian families arrived, house prices in Argyll and Bute have increased 12.1 per cent and gross salaries in the salmon industry in the area rose by 11%. That is not to say these facts are related.

“Syrians in Bute are no more responsible for an increase in crime than they are for the success of the salmon production industry.

“To use misleading statements like this is incredibly divisive and we commend all of the local Bute residents who have responded to this hateful campaign in defence of their new neighbours and friends.”

Local MSP Michael Russell tweeted: “This is vile – an awful, divisive, hate-filled lie which is very painful to those already suffering. Argyll and Bute is a big area, there is no evidence of rising crime of any sort on the island and no information as yet on what actually happened.”

On the island yesterday, the thoughts of locals were far removed from the unreal world of social media as a heavy police presence remained, looking for clues to Alesha’s murder.

Police say they have had a “very good” response to public appeals and are pursuing a number of lines of inquiry.

Alesha, from Airdrie, North Lanarkshire, was reported missing from her grandmother’s home in Rothesay at 6.25am on Monday.

Her body was found in woodland on the site of a former hotel in Ardbeg Road by a member of the public around two-and-a-half hours later.

Following the results of a post-mortem examination on Tuesday, police confirmed they are treating the schoolgirl’s death as murder.

Islanders have been warned to be vigilant about the safety of their children and the security of their homes as investigations continue.

There was also increased police activity at the property where Alesha had been staying yesterday morning.

More than a dozen officers entered the garden of the Ardbeg Road property with long sticks to search the gardens and bushes surrounding the building.

A police spokesman confirmed a number of items, including a vehicle, had been recovered as part of the investigation.

He added: “The response from the public following our appeals has been very good and we would like to thank those who have taken the time to contact us with information so far.

“A number of lines of inquiry are being followed up. However, we continue to appeal to those who have not yet spoken to police and may have information to get in contact with us.

“We would like to speak to anyone who may have CCTV at their home or business or any motorists who have dashcam footage that might help with our investigation.”

After warnings from the local police commander to look out for their families and secure their homes, the overwhelming assumption among locals is the police believe the killer is still on the island.

The community has been left in shock by the murder of Alesha, who was a few days into a three-week break to visit family.

Reverend Owain Jones has opened his United Church of Bute in Rothesay to allow people to visit at any time.

He said: “We’re all staggered, we have no words for this and it’s beyond any power of words to express. We’re all just really sitting in a kind of shared stunned silence just trying to uphold each other. 

“Bute is one of these places that is incredibly safe. You take all sorts of things for granted here and don’t panic if you forget to lock the house or whatever.

“It’s not a remote island in the classic sense – it’s only 90 minutes to Glasgow – but, even so, it is an island and we all know each other at least by sight, and it’s an extremely safe place and there is no context for this.”

Detective Superintendent Stuart Houston said Alesha’s family were “utterly devastated” at her death, and he appealed for anyone with information to come forward.

Referring to rumours that Alesha could have sleepwalked out of her 
home, he said detectives were exploring a number of lines of inquiry.

He is still keen to speak to people who were involved in the search for the missing girl that was conducted early on Monday morning.

He added: “Alesha had lots of friends who will no doubt find it very difficult to comprehend why they will never see their friend again. For such a young girl to have her life taken away is incomprehensible.”