Morocco arrests three suspects in Islamist-linked murders of Danish, Norwegian hikers: source

Moroccan authorities have arrested three fugitive suspects in the brutal murders of two Scandinavian hikers following an intensive manhunt, a source close to the investigation said on Thursday.

Morocco arrests three suspects in Islamist-linked murders of Danish, Norwegian hikers: source
Imlil. Photo: Terje Bendiksby / NTB scanpix/Ritzau Scanpix

The arrests in the city of Marrakesh follow a first arrest on Monday, hours after the discovery of the two women's bodies at a camp in the High Atlas mountains.

The first man arrested is suspected of belonging to an Islamic extremist group.

On Wednesday, a source close to the probe said that one of the two victims was beheaded.

“Radical Islam is not ruled out due to the profile of the suspect arrested and of the three men wanted” after the women's bodies were found Monday in the High Atlas Mountains, the source said prior to the arrests, asking not to be named.

The source told AFP that one of the women — 24-year-old Louisa Vesterager Jespersen from Denmark and 28-year-old Maren Ueland from Norway — had been beheaded.

Police spokesman Boubker Sabik also said terrorism was suspected and that the three suspects on the run had been “identified and a search for them is under way by all the security services”.

One of the three had “a court record linked to terrorist acts”, he said, while the prosecutor general's office said the man in custody belonged to an extremist group.

The prosecutor general's office, in a statement, said it was determining the authenticity of a video on social media allegedly showing the murder of one of the women.

The interior ministry said initially that the Danish and Norwegian hikers were found with cuts to their necks in an isolated mountainous area 10 kilometres from the tourist village of Imlil.

The arrest was made in Marrakesh, about 60 kilometres north of Imlil, the ministry said.

A local guide who works in the area told AFP the body of one woman was found inside a tent and the other outside of it.

The guide, who declined to be identified, said the area where they were found was also frequented by three men from Marrakesh, including the one who was arrested.

The two women studied at a university in southern Norway and had planned to travel together for a month, Ueland's mother told Norwegian broadcaster NRK.

The investigation is being conducted by Morocco's central bureau of judicial investigation in cooperation with the royal gendarmerie and authorities from national security.

Security was stepped up in the region and hiking suspended following the discovery of the bodies, Moroccan media said.

“It's very bad for the region. There will undoubtedly be cancellations,” a local guide, Hossein, told AFP from Imlil.

The most recent jihadist attack hit Morocco in 2011, when 17 people were killed in Marrakesh. An attack in the financial capital Casablanca left 33 dead in 2003.

Tourism is a cornerstone of Morocco's economy and the kingdom's second-largest employer, after agriculture.

The sector accounts for 10 percent of national income and is one of the country's main sources of foreign currency.

READ ALSO: Morocco arrests suspect after brutal murder of Danish, Norwegian women


Morocco death penalties confirmed for killers of Scandinavian hikers

A Moroccan anti-terrorist court on Wednesday confirmed death sentences handed down against three men convicted of beheading two Scandinavian tourists last December, and sentenced a fourth man to be executed.

Morocco death penalties confirmed for killers of Scandinavian hikers
Moroccan police stand guard during the trial in Sale earlier this year. Photo: AFP

All four defendants had been convicted at a trial in July, but the fourth defendant was originally sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of the two women, killed while hiking in the High Atlas mountains.

Those sentenced to death included ringleader Abdessamad Ejjoud, a street vendor and underground imam, who had confessed to orchestrating the attack with two other radicalised Moroccans.

They had admitted killing 24-year-old Danish student Louisa Vesterager Jespersen and 28-year-old Norwegian Maren Ueland in murders that shocked the North African country.

Although the death penalty remains legal in Morocco, there have been no executions there since 1993 because of a moratorium, and the issue of capital punishment is a matter of political debate.

The court in Sale, near Rabat, confirmed jail sentences of between five and 30 years against 19 other men, but increased the jail sentence of another man from 15 to 20 years.

The court also confirmed an order for the three men who carried out the killings and their accomplices to pay two million dirhams (190,000 euros) in compensation to Ueland's family.

But it refused a request from the Jespersen family for 10 million dirhams in compensation from the Moroccan state for its “moral responsibility”.

READ ALSO: Convicts appeal in Morocco case of murdered Danish, Norwegian hikers