updated 2/19/2005 10:20:28 PM ET 2005-02-20T03:20:28

Police have arrested a suspect in the killing of an American nun who died trying to protect the Amazon rain forest and its poor residents from encroaching loggers and ranchers, authorities said Saturday.

Amair Freijoli da Cunha, known as Tato, was taken into custody after turning himself in to police in Altamira, a city about 82 miles from where 73-year-old Dorothy Stang was shot dead last Saturday, police said.

Two purported gunmen and a rancher accused of ordering the slaying remained on the loose, police investigator Ana Indira Vaz said. Arrest warrants for Cunha and the three other suspects had been issued Monday.

Cunha allegedly was the intermediary who hired the gunmen on behalf of rancher Vitamiro Goncalves Moura, known as Bida, police said. Authorities claim Moura ordered the killing.

Cunha turned himself in with a lawyer and was expected to be interrogated later Saturday, police said.

Cunha told police said he knew Moura but was not involved in Stang's killing, police said.

Also Saturday, police released a photograph of Rayfran das Neves Sales, one of the suspected gunmen who was identified by witnesses, police said.

About 50 state and federal officers and jungle troops in helicopters and pickup trucks were hunting for Neves and the other suspects in the largely lawless Amazon region where Stang was murdered.

"It's just a matter of time before we catch them, we're close," Vaz said.

Walame Fiado Machado, who is heading the federal police investigation, said recently he believed the two gunmen were probably hiding in a dense, hard-to-reach stretch of forest near Bida's ranch. He said the rancher and an associate may have fled the region in a small plane soon after the murder.

Stang was killed at the Boa Esperanca settlement, near the rural town of Anapu, about 1,300 miles north of Rio de Janeiro.

Stang, a naturalized Brazilian originally from Dayton, Ohio, had been in the region for more than 20 years helping protect the Amazon rain forest and local peasants.

Lawlessness has long been common in Para state, where ranchers, backed by hired gunmen, ensnare poor workers in an endless cycle of debt akin to slavery.

In Sao Paulo, about 1,000 people attended a mass in Stang's honor. The mass was celebrated by Cardinal Claudio Hummes, a possible successor to Pope John Paul II.

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