AN AL Qaeda suspect accused of killing four French tourists last December escaped Mauritanian police in a shoot out on Monday, in which another suspected Islamist was killed, police sources said on Wednesday.
Sidi Ould Sidna, accused of leading the gang which killed the French tourists on Christmas Eve in southeast Mauritania, was on the run from police after escaping the cityâ€™s main law courts a week ago after requesting he be left alone to pray.
Scores of police and gendarmerie officers tracked Signa to a suspected Islamist cell in the northern outskirts of Nouakchott on Monday. Sidna was initially believed to have been killed in a long shoot out, but officials said on Wednesday he had escaped. â€œSidi Ould Sidna was one of the three fugitives who are still being hunted by police,â€ said one source, who asked not to be identified.
One suspect, a Mauritanian called Moussa Ahmed Ould Ndeye, was killed in the shoot out while another, Mauritanian Ahmed Ould Radhi, was seriously wounded, police sources said.
Radhi already stood trial last year on charges of belonging to a terrorist group but was acquitted along with some two-dozen of his co-defendants, including Sidna.
The government has so far maintained an official silence about the fate of Sidna, whose escape from custody last week was an embarrassment for President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahiâ€™s administration.
Authorities quickly suspended officials connected with the case and took the investigating magistrate, who conducted a hearing with Sidna just before he escaped, off the case.
â€œBlack-out on the terroristsâ€™ identities,â€ wrote newspaper le Quotidien on Thursday, criticising the governmentâ€™s silence.
â€œThe confusion over this case is total,â€ said one local intellectual, who asked not to be named. â€œEither Sidna is dead and you must say so, or he is not and you need to warn the inhabitants because there is a wolf on the loose.â€
The French embassy issued a warning this week to French citizens to be particularly vigilant if travelling in Mauritania.
Decemberâ€™s killings were followed three days later by an assault on a remote army outpost in which three soldiers were killed, which was also claimed by al Qaedaâ€™s North African wing.
In February, a shooting outside the Israeli embassy in Nouakchott was also claimed by al Qaeda, fuelling fears that its cells in Algeria and Morocco are moving further south.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner offered aid in combating the terrorist threat during a visit to Nouakchott in February. â€” Reuters.