Three magistrates, leading different parts of the investigation, protested publicly against a decision by the interior ministry to set up a special unit in Paris to co-ordinate the search. The magistrates complained about "manipulation" and "claim-jumping", rejecting suggestions that the unit had been set up with their blessing and under their authority. They said they had not even been informed.
The row follows a revelation that Sid Ahmed Rezala, the suspected killer of Isabel Peake, was arrested by French frontier police on 13 November - a month after her death - but released shortly afterwards. Magistrates and gendarmes leading the Peake investigation had identified Rezala as one of six leading suspects at that time but had not circulated his name to other police forces.
There has also been criticism of the ponderous response of a magistrate and police in Dijon to the murder of a 36-year-old Frenchwoman, Corinne Caillaux, on a night train early last Tuesday.
Although Rezala was identified as the leading suspect within hours, no warrant was issued for his arrest until the following Thursday. Police went to his parents' home in Marseilles but he had left the previous afternoon.
Criticism in the French and British press of such failures - all of them connected to poor co-operation between different judicial and police authorities - led the interior ministry to order the creation of a special team to lead the hunt for Rezala at the headquarters of the French detective service in Paris. This decision was taken, clumsily, over the heads of the magistrates who are leading the Peake and Caillaux investigations.
The three magistrates, Michel Bonnieu and Jean Dematteis in Chateauroux and Frederic Desaunettes in Dijon, said in a joint statement yesterday that they learned of this unit "with great surprise" from a French news agency dispatch. They "deplored" the fact that they had not been consulted and "rejected all attempts at manipulation and claim-jumping" by whatever authorities were responsible.
Their own investigations would continue in "complete serenity", they said. But even the usually placid French press is beginning to complain there has been too much serenity in the hunt for Rezala. He is also suspected of murdering a third woman, a 20-year-old French student, Emilie Bazin, whose body was found last Friday dumped in the cellar of a house where he had been squatting in Amiens in northern France.
She is believed to have been murdered on or soon after 29 October. Isabel Peake was thrown from a Limoges to Paris train 16 days earlier. On 13 November, Rezala was arrested for the possession of a small amount of marijuana on a train between Berne, in Switzerland, and Paris but he was released within a few hours.
The team of two magistrates and 10 gendarmes investigating the death of Isabel Peake had already established that Rezala was in Limoges the day before her death. He was regarded as one of the six most likely suspects on a list of 30 but, pending further inquiries, his name was not circulated to police forces throughout France.
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