'Bikini killer' held in raid on Kathmandu casino

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Charles Sobhraj, who once allegedly terrorised the 1970s hippie trail as the "bikini killer'', was arrested yesterday in a Kathmandu casino. The French citizen, also known as "The Serpent", was playing baccarat early yesterday when police arrived.

Apparently he had not bet that anyone at the Yak and Yeti hotel's Casino Royale would recognise him as the murder suspect wanted by Nepal for drugging and killing two female western backpackers there almost 30 years ago.

For nearly three decades the lone gambler, now balding and 59, had also dodged an arrest warrant issued by Thailand in connection with the drugging and killing of six girls, all wearing bikinis, on a beach at Pattaya by serving a separate 21-year sentence in India for theft.

Sobhraj, who was deported to France in 1997 and investigated there in connection with a plot to poison tourists, is expected to be charged on Monday. He is considered to be an Asian version of Charles Manson, a mesmerising conman with an eye for the ladies.

Despite his notoriety, drawn from accusations of mass poisonings, robberies, and at least 18 other brutal killings across Asia, Sobhraj has never been convicted of murder. Escapes from prisons in Greece, Afghanistan, and India added to the intrigue and he sold his criminal life story to a French film producer, Yves Renier, for $15m (£9m) in 1997.

According to Rudra Thapa, the floor manager of Casino Royale: "Mr Charles was dressed casually in an open-necked shirt and no jacket, playing baccarat. He is a small-built and self-contained man, not all that noticeable. He had been placing conservative bets of between 5,000 and 10,000 Indian rupees".

The alleged serial killer stayed for a fortnight in Thamel, a neighbourhood of cheap lodgings near the Nepalese Royal Palace, and had posed as a buyer of Pashmina shawls. His photograph was taken by local photojournalists who noticed his distinctive looks. He was born of an Indian father and a Vietnamese mother.

The Western backpackers Sobhraj is suspected of killing in Nepal, were Laddie du Parr, a Canadian, and Annabella Tremont, an American, whose charred bodies were found in Kathmandu's suburbs.

While behind bars in India, Sobhraj allegedly boasted to the Australian writer Richard Neville about a string of murders, thefts and brazen frauds. One ploy was to get accomplices to feed victims laxatives and quaaludes, and pretend to nurse them back to health while he borrowed their passports and smuggled weapons and drugs. He later challenged the revelations published in Neville's The Life and Crimes of Charles Sobhraj.

Neville claims that Sobhraj walked free from India in 1986 by drugging the guards at his birthday party.

He was rearrested 24 days later in Goa and this extended sentence in India meant that he could not be extradited to Thailand to face pending murder charges before the statute of limitations ran out.

An English language biopic about his life and crimes, called Shadow of the Cobra, went straight to video. In Paris, people used to pay $5,000 to sit at a pavement café with the celebrity criminal.