D.C. Police investigate after a young girl was shot Friday in Southeast Washington. (Justin Jouvenal/The Washington Post)

An 8-year-old girl walking home from her aunt’s apartment in Southeast Washington on Friday afternoon was shot in the chest and critically injured, according to D.C. police.

Two law enforcement officials with knowledge of the investigation said police think two groups of men were arguing outside an apartment building when at least one pulled a gun and began shooting. The third-grader was struck by a stray round, they said.

“She is a child who shouldn’t have to be fighting for her life,” said Beverly Darden, who identified the victim as her granddaughter, Makayla Darden. “How is an innocent child shot?”

Authorities pleaded Friday evening for people to come forward with information. “We’re asking the community for any help they can give us,” Assistant Police Chief Alfred Durham said outside the Wheeler Courts apartment complex in Congress Heights.

After the shooting, a group of men were spotted fleeing from the back of a low-slung apartment building in the gated complex in the 1200 block of Valley Avenue SE, police said. Authorities are reviewing footage from surveillance cameras, and on Friday evening detectives were interviewing two “persons of interest,” Durham said.

The shooting, which occurred shortly after 3 p.m., was the latest of several daylight shootings in Southeast Washington this year. Makayla was rushed to a hospital, and police said Friday evening that she was in critical but stable condition.

Darden said that her granddaughter had just returned from visiting an aunt when the gunfire erupted. She said that she had played with the girl a few hours earlier and was about to deliver a Valentine to Makayla when she heard what had happened. Darden said she rushed to the scene and found Makayla inside a security guard shack.

Makayla, a student at Imagine Southeast Public Charter School, had enjoyed a day off from school. Her grandmother said Makayla likes gymnastics.

Hope Crawley, a neighbor, said Makayla also would jump rope and hop on the computer at a nearby recreation center.

“She is a sweet baby,” Crawley said. “She was always playing.”

Lakisha Washington, who lives in the same building as Makayla, said she feels lucky that her own children weren’t in the line of fire. If she hadn’t dropped them off at her brother’s house the night before, she said, they might have been outside.

The area along Valley Avenue has had problems with drugs and gun violence but has gone through a transformation over the past decade with the construction of a townhouse community and upgraded security around the apartment complexes. Improvements in the area were anchored in part by the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center, a multimillion-dollar complex about two blocks away, and Oxon Run Park, which is located across the street from the shooting site and is a gathering place for many in the neighborhood.

Still, neighbors said, the area remains troubled.

“That girl was not the target, but anyone is a target out here,” Washington said. “It takes a kid getting shot to get someone to do something down here.”