Europe

Pair held in Ivory Coast for Briton's 1996 murder

Jean-Claude Lacote and Hilde van Acker Image copyright Europol
Image caption Jean-Claude Lacote and Hilde van Acker fled to South Africa when they were initially freed for lack of evidence

Two of the EU's most wanted criminals have been arrested in Ivory Coast after years on the run from Belgium, where they were given life terms in absentia for murdering a British businessman.

Fraudster Jean-Claude Lacote and his partner Hilde van Acker are wanted for shooting Marcus Mitchell in 1996.

They had lived for years in South Africa before fleeing again.

Van Acker, 56, was recently identified as one of EU crime agency Europol's most wanted women.

Surrey businessman Marcus Mitchell was shot in the head and neck in a forest in the Belgian coastal town of De Haan on 23 May 1996.

Image copyright Ivory Coast gendarmerie
Image caption Police in Abidjan said the pair were arrested on 20 and 21 November

At the Belgian trial in 2011, prosecutors said Mitchell had borrowed money in the hope of making a lucrative business deal with Lacote and was murdered when he realised he had been cheated. They described the killers as a danger to society.

The trial heard the couple had taken a ferry to the UK the day after the murder and that identity documents belonging to Mitchell were found on a beach at Lymington in Hampshire two days later.

French national Lacote and Belgian Van Acker were arrested in Belgium later in 1996 but were initially released due to lack of evidence. They fled to South Africa even though an Interpol red notice had been issued in their names.

There, Lacote became an editor on a reality TV crime show called Duty Calls, which was aired from 2000-2003.

Image copyright Belgian police
Image caption Belgian police's most wanted website now lists the pair as arrested

He was arrested in 2007 on suspicion of defrauding an Irish businessman but escaped from jail in Johannesburg in mysterious circumstances while awaiting trial. Van Acker was reportedly involved in the jailbreak. Reports suggest they fled to Brazil but little is known of their whereabouts in recent years.

Belgian police tried for years to extradite them from South Africa and since 2011 the pair have been on a list of Belgium's most wanted convicted criminals.

Ivorian police said the pair were detained on Wednesday and Thursday in the city of Abidjan, the economic capital of the West African country.

The pair had changed their names to Stephane Lacote and Marlene Lacote Vacker in order to avoid detection, officers said.

In a Facebook post, they said Lacote and Van Acker had also been convicted in absentia in Germany and the French city of Lille in 2012. Lacote was given a five-year term in Lille for fraud and making death threats while Van Acker was given two years as an accomplice.

Belgian prosecutors have said they will seek their extradition. Police Commissioner Martin Van Steenbrugge told Belgian media that he had been hunting Van Acker for most of his career but that the arrests were especially good news for Marcus Mitchell's widow.

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