By Ibrahima Sylla
NOUAKCHOTT, Dec 31 (Reuters) - Mauritanian forces hunting the killers of French tourists and government soldiers are not convinced by a claim that al Qaeda launched one of the attacks, security sources said on Monday.
Last week’s separate attacks have shaken the normally peaceful West African country as it prepares to host a section of the Dakar Rally -- a race that gives a lucrative boost to Mauritania’s nascent tourism industry.
A promise of 3,000 security personnel to ensure safe passage was enough for the rally’s security chief, who has given the green light to its Mauritanian stages starting Jan 11.
But with talk of French tourists cancelling trips, Mauritanians are aware there is still time for a change of plan, should a serious al Qaeda threat be established.
Stages in neighbouring Mali were cancelled last year after French security services cited a threat from Algerian rebels.
Last Monday three attackers, who authorities suspect are linked to al Qaeda, gunned down four French tourists and injured a fifth as they enjoyed a Christmas Eve picnic by the side of a road in the south of the country, near the border with Senegal.
Gunmen killed three army soldiers three days later in the remote and sparsely populated north of the country, bordering Algeria and Morocco’s breakaway territory of Western Sahara.
In an audio recording aired by Al Arabiya television, a spokesman said al Qaeda’s North African branch had killed four soldiers late on Wednesday, but made no mention of the French.
Details in the statement differed from those given by the Mauritanian authorities, and the Gulf TV station said it could not verify the statement was indeed from al Qaeda.
Security sources in Mauritania’s capital Nouakchott said the al Qaeda link was just one of the lines of inquiry.
Suspicion was also falling on armed smugglers who traffic drugs, weapons and people across poorly policed borders deep in the Sahara.
The soldiers were shot dead by the occupants of two vehicles they were pursuing, who then made off with a heavy gun captured from the soldiers’ vehicle.
The rough terrain would require heavy-duty vehicles similar to those designed for military use, said one security source.
"The heavy weapon they took, which they dismantled, could only be used by a specialist or somebody who had been trained for it," said another security source in Nouakchott.
Security forces have detained at least seven people in relation to the killing of the French, but the three killers are still at large, possibly in neighbouring Senegal or Mali.
Mauritanian investigators say they are questioning the operator of a pirogue, or small wooden boat, who they believe ferried the attackers across the Senegal river into Senegal.
"The search goes on. So far there is no news. We have not located them -- otherwise we would have arrested them already," said Daouda Diop, spokesman for Senegal’s Gendarmerie service. (Additional reporting by Diadie Ba in Dakar; writing by Alistair Thomson; editing by Keith Weir)