updated 12/25/2007 4:08:12 PM ET 2007-12-25T21:08:12

Mauritania's interior minister blamed a terrorist sleeper cell Wednesday for the Christmas Eve killing of four French family members visiting the African country.

Mauritania, on the edges of the Sahara desert, has been relatively free of terrorism by comparison with neighbors such as Algeria, where earlier this month a suicide bomber killed 37 people.

"The cowardly act of violence toward the French tourists was an act of terrorism," said Mauritania's Minister of the Interior Yall Zakaria Alassane in an address to lawmakers on Wednesday. "There are sleeper cells in Mauritania, and one of them committed this act," he said.

The hunt for three people suspected of gunning down the four French tourists on Monday has been expanded to neighboring Senegal. Helicopters patrolled the border.

Sidi Mouloud Ould Brahim, governor of the region where the attack occurred, said the three suspects crossed the border into Senegal late Tuesday. Senegalese officials could not confirm whether the suspects were in their territory.

Initially police had said the gunmen were attempting to rob the French family as they picnicked on the side of a road near Aleg, a small town 150 miles east of Mauritania's capital, Nouakchott. But a day later, Mauritanian prosecutors called the slaying an act of terror and said the suspects are believed to be members of a regional al-Qaida-linked network.

Father was sole survivor
A statement issued by the public prosecutor's office in Mauritania's capital on Tuesday said the attack was carried out by three men who it said were known members of the Algeria-based terrorism network al-Qaida in Islamic North Africa.

At least two of the suspects had been accused by prosecutors this year of being members of the al-Qaida-linked terror group and of having undergone military training with it in Algeria.

The sole survivor of the attack, the family's father, was seriously injured and flown overnight Monday to the main hospital in Senegal's capital, Dakar, the hospital said.

French Prime Minister Francois Fillon on Wednesday identified him as Francois Tollet and said he had been sent back to France. "I assure you that French authorities are determined to shed light on this tragedy," Fillon told reporters.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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