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31.05.2019 Morocco

Alleged ringleader admits hiker killings at Morocco trial

By AFP
Moroccan security forces standing guard during Thursday's trial in Sale, near Rabat.  By FADEL SENNA (AFP)
MAY 31, 2019 MOROCCO
Moroccan security forces standing guard during Thursday's trial in Sale, near Rabat. By FADEL SENNA (AFP)

The alleged leader of a jihadist cell accused of killing two Scandinavian hikers in Morocco admitted the murders at trial Thursday, saying they were carried out in the name of the Islamic State group.

Danish student Louisa Vesterager Jespersen, 24, and 28-year-old Norwegian Maren Ueland had their throats slit while camping in an isolated area of the High Atlas mountains in December.

"I beheaded one of them... I regret it," former street vendor Abdessamad Ejjoud, 25, told the court, blaming co-defendant Younes Ouaziyad for killing the other hiker.

"We loved IS and we prayed to God for it," he said.

Twenty-four defendants -- facing charges including promoting terrorism, forming a terrorist cell and premeditated murder -- appeared in the court in Sale, near Rabat, under heavy security.

Three are suspected of direct involvement in the killings. Ejjoud had been jailed for trying to join IS in Syria.

In theory, the killers could face the death penalty, but Morocco has had a de facto freeze on executions since 1993.

The main suspects are all from the Marrakesh region, near the site of the killings which shocked the North African country.

Nature lovers Jespersen and Ueland shared an apartment and went to Norway's Bo University, where they were studying to be guides.

They had travelled together to Morocco for their Christmas holidays.

Their lives were ended in the foothills of Toubkal, the highest summit in North Africa, some 80 kilometres (50 miles) from the city of Marrakesh, a tourist magnet.

According to the charge sheet, the assailants travelled to the High Atlas mountains on December 12 on a mission to kill tourists.

Several potential targets were passed over because the foreigners were accompanied by guides or local residents.

It was four days before the killers selected their targets, according to the prosecution. It said two of them carried out the killings while the third filmed them on a phone.

After the bodies were discovered, the Moroccan authorities were initially cautious, referring to a "criminal act" and wounds to the victims' necks.

But that changed when the video surfaced showing a victim being beheaded.

In it, one of the killers refers to "enemies of Allah" and says the murders are to avenge the killings of jihadists in Syria.

A separate video published in the initial aftermath of the murders showed the alleged killers pledging allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

The only foreigner among the defendants is Spanish-Swiss 25-year-old Kevin Zoller Guervos, who moved to Morocco after converting to Islam.

The others come from modest backgrounds, scraping by on odd jobs and living in neglected areas of Marrakesh, the North African kingdom's main tourist city.

Investigators said the "cell" was inspired by IS ideology, but Morocco's anti-terror chief insisted the accused had no contact with the jihadist group in conflict zones.

IS has never claimed responsibility for the murders.

At a previous hearing, the court accepted a request by the Jespersen family's lawyer for the government to be held "morally responsible" for the killings so they could receive compensation.

The trial opened on May 2 but was adjourned to May 16 and then paused again after a brief hearing.

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