French police hopeful in hunt for train killer

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FRENCH POLICE said last night that they were confident they could make an arrest of the murderer of Isabel Peake, a British student, in October, on the basis of information linking the suspect to the murder of a French woman on a train earlier this week.

The police are looking for Sid Ahmed Rezala, a 20-year-old Algerian, whose father was helping police yesterday by leading them to his son's known places of refuge in the Marseilles area. Police across France have been placed on high alert, night trains are being searched and border checks stepped up.

Mr Rezala has previous convictions for violence and the attempted rape of young boys. Investigators believe he is the man responsible for a savage knife attack that killed Corinne Caillaux, 36, who was on a night train from Calais to the Riviera on Monday night.

The evidence connecting him with the murder of Ms Peake - who was thrown from a night train between Limoges and Paris on 13 October - is circumstantial but strong.

Mr Rezala was caught without a ticket on the train on which Ms Caillaux was later stabbed 15 times near Dijon on Monday night. He was forced to show his identity card to a ticket inspector after saying he had no money to pay the fine.

In October, he was found travelling without a ticket on the Limoges- to-Paris night train, a few hours before Ms Peake caught the train in which she was attacked. Her body was found beside the tracks north of Limoges, on the same day.

Since his release from prison in Marseilles in May, Mr Rezala is thought to have been living on night trains. He has been charged 40 times for travelling without a ticket in the last seven months. Under the official procedure, a traveller without a ticket can be arrested if he or she does not pay an instant fine or produce a valid identity card.

Criticism by the British press of the failure to identify Mr Rezala as the likely murderer of Ms Peake before his alleged attack on Ms Caillaux was angrily rejected by the French police yesterday. One officer said: "He was one of 30 people we had identified, by detective work, as being a possible suspect or witness in the Peake case. We were looking for him but we had no reason to believe he was the number one suspect, until his name came up again in connection with the murder on a train near Dijon."

"The fact that we had already identified him as a possible suspect is one of the reasons why he was identified so rapidly as the likely assailant in the Dijon case. But it took the second attack to point the finger clearly at him."

Other sources suggested that the Peake investigators had given low priority to Mr Rezala because his previous targets were boys and because he did not resemble closely enough their composite picture of a man seen talking to Ms Peake as she boarded the Paris train.

Investigators believe they may have conclusive, physical evidence to connect Mr Rezala to this week's murder. Ms Caillaux was still alive when she was found in a lavatory by ticket inspectors a few minutes after the train left Dijon station in the early hours of Tuesday. Police pathologists believe that she must have been attacked a maximum of 15 minutes earlier. Her four-year-old son was asleep nearby.

The inspectors found a blood-soaked baseball hat close to her body. Mr Rezala was wearing a similar hat when he was found travelling without a ticket about two hours earlier, on the journey from Calais to Vintimiglia on the Italian frontier. DNA tests are being conducted on hairs found in the hat. Police have records of Mr Rezala's DNA taken after earlier crimes.

After Ms Caillaux's body was found, the train was stopped and sealed and all the passengers questioned. Mr Rezala was not among them. The train had not made a scheduled stop since he was questioned by inspectors two hours previously, but it had paused to change drivers in Dijon station a few minutes before the discovery.

Investigators believe that Mr Rezala must either have left the train then, or jumped onto the track and escaped when the alarm was sounded and the train called to a halt.