Security forces in Mauritania found a bomb-making facility in a house they stormed after exchanging fire with gunmen believed to have been involved in the killing of four French tourists in December, officials said Tuesday.
The gunmen, who authorities said they suspected of having links to the al-Qaida terrorist network, fled after a shootout late Monday that left two dead on the outskirts of the capital, Nouakchott.
Police who entered the house afterward found a "laboratory poised to produce explosives," said Mohamed Abdallahi Ould Adda, of the Islamic nation's judicial police force.
"We found an explosive device they were preparing to detonate in case the house was assaulted by security forces," Adda said.
At least three men managed to flee the house before police encircled it, he said.
Among those believed to have escaped from the building on Monday was Sidi Ould Sidna, who was arrested in January in connection with the tourist killings. Last week, Sidna escaped from a Mauritanian courthouse after an interrogation session, tricking guards who believed he was inside a bathroom.
An Associated Press reporter at the scene Monday saw the bodies of two men killed during the confrontation. The dead included one police officer and a gunman in civilian clothes who lay outside a house surrounded by police and army units who were calling in reinforcements.
The French tourists were gunned down Dec. 24 on the side of a Mauritanian highway where they had stopped to have a picnic near the town of Aleg, about 155 miles south of Nouakchott. Mauritanian officials say the men behind the attack are linked to an al-Qaida-affiliated terror cell headquartered in neighboring Algeria.
The tourist attack and a subsequent assault on a Mauritanian military outpost led organizers of the Dakar Rally road race to cancel the trans-Saharan course this year.