NOUAKCHOTT (Reuters) - A Frenchman suspected of trying join al Qaeda-linked fighters controlling northern Mali has been arrested in neighbouring Mauritania, security sources there said on Thursday.
The arrest highlights the draw of Islamist-occupied northern Mali to foreign jihadists, who Western nations, led by France, fear will use the zone as a launchpad for attacks abroad.
“The Frenchman is about 30 years old, from the Pyrenees-Atlantiques (province in France) and is being questioned by the police in Nouakchott,” one of the sources, both of whom asked not to be named, told Reuters.
The man was arrested at a checkpoint just outside Nema, a remote Mauritanian town near its border with Mali’s Timbuktu northern region.
“We suspect he was trying to join the armed groups in Timbuktu but we need to wait until the end of the investigation to be sure,” the source added, referring to the Malian town now controlled by al Qaeda-linked fighters.
A second security source said that the man had come from Morocco and had visas for both Mauritania and Mali.
Another Frenchman was arrested earlier this month in Mali on suspicion of trying to reach fighters in Timbuktu.
France, Mali’s former colonial ruler, fears al Qaeda’s North African arm, known as AQIM and one of three Islamist groups operating in Mali, is cementing its base in the West African state, creating a springboard from which to target French political and economic interests at home and abroad.
French diplomatic sources said last month that a handful of French nationals have traveled to the Sahel region to train for Islamic jihad.
Reporting by Laurent Prieur; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Mark Heinrich