NOUAKCHOTT - A suspected French jihadist has been arrested on the border between Mauritania and an area of northern Mali occupied by Islamic extremists, a police source said on Friday.
The suspect, who is in his 40s and entered Mauritania via Morocco, was detained on Tuesday at Nema, a Mauritanian town near the Malian border, the source said on condition of anonymity.
"The simple fact that a light-skinned Frenchman wants to go to Azawad (northern Mali) at this time is sufficiently suspicious to security forces," he said.
After the suspect's arrest, he was transferred to Nouakchott for interrogation on his "real intentions, the goal of his voyage and his alleged links with jihadists" of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the source added.
Azawad is the name given by Tuareg nomads to northern Mali.
The region was taken over by Tuareg separatists and Islamic extremists following a coup in Bamako that overthrew Mali's elected government in March.
The Islamists later wrested control from the separatists and now control the vast arid zone, where they have imposed a brutal form of sharia, or Islamic law, whipping smokers and drinkers, stoning unmarried couples and amputating the hands of thieves.
The police source said that even if the Frenchman "was a normal man, without ties to the terrorists, it was our duty to prevent him from carrying out his plan" to go to Timbuktu, one of the occupied cities.
French foreign ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot confirmed the arrest during a press conference.
"We are in contact with Mauritanian authorities who arrested him," he said.
Regional security sources said in early November that dozens of young Europeans and Africans living in Europe had attempted to join the ranks of the Islamists in northern Mali.
On November 3, French-Malian citizen Ibrahim Aziz Ouattara, 24, was arrested in Sevare in central Mali on his way to join the Islamists. Parisian prosecutors have opened an investigation into his arrest.
Witnesses have also seen scores of jihadists from Sudan and Western Sahara arriving in the zone.
Western powers, fearful the region could become a haven for terrorists, are backing an international African armed force which is preparing to drive out the Islamists.