Mauritania police arrest suspect in French tourist killings

NOUAKCHOTT - Mauritanian police on Thursday arrested a third suspect in the killings last December of four French tourists, after an officer saw through his disguise of a women's veil, said security sources.

Maarouf Ould Haiba was on the point of taking a taxi in central Nouakchott wearing a "malahfa", the veil worn by Mauritanian women, when an officer was alerted by the masculine way he walked, said a police source.

"A police officer who noticed his very masculine gait approached him as he was getting into (the car), overpowered him and took away a weapon from him that he had under his veil," said the source.

On being arrested, he shouted: "'Allahu Akbar (God is great), it's me, Ould Haiba. I really did kill the French infidels,'" the source added.

Police had been hunting for Ould Haiba since the December 24 killings of the four French tourists in the southwest of the country, which had been considered a safe part of the vast mainly desert nation.

The other two suspects, Sidi Ould Sidna and Ould Sidi Chabarnou, were arrested early January in Guinea-Bissau and quickly extradited to Mauritania.

Both suspects had previously been arrested in connection with the extremist Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), which in January 2007 declared allegiance to Al-Qaeda and called itself Al-Qaeda's Branch in the Islamic Maghreb.

But Ould Sidna, managed to escape from the court house in Nouakchott on April 2 and police are still searching for him.

Commenting on Thursday's arrest, a security source said: "We think this arrest will help with the arrest of other wanted terrorists."

Ould Haiba, a former soldier, was already known to police for a series of crimes, before he was allegedly recruited by Islamic militants.

Police said he was probably one of the three militants who escaped from a house just north of the capital after a gun battle with police, in which one militant and a police officer were killed and nine people wounded.

On Wednesday, police said they thought a seriously wounded man they found in an abandoned getaway car after the gun battle was Abou Mouadh, an explosives expert trained by the GSPC.

Later Wednesday however, Commissioner Mohamed Abdallahi Ould Taleb Abdei said the police had opened an inquiry into a botched raid on two houses in the capital Wednesday in which officers killed one civilian and wounded another.

Also Wednesday, the state attorney's department on Wednesday warned the public not to give assistance or shelter to Ould Sina, saying he had "rejoined a gang of armed terrorists still on the run and being hunted down."

A 13,000-euro (20,500-dollar) reward has been offered to anyone providing information leading to the fugitives' arrest.

The public prosecutor's office in Nouakchott said Wednesday: "The hunt is still on for the members of the gang and there is a good chance that they are still in the city of Nouakchott."

Of the four French tourists killed last December, three were members of the same family. A fifth man, Francois Tollet, who was wounded in the attack but survived, was another member of the family.

hos-cpy/jj/nb

04/10/2008 15:34 GMT

Copyright © 2008