Suspect held in hunt for knife attacker who killed woman in French missionary home

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Police have arrested a suspect in the fatal knife attack on a woman at a retirement home for Catholic missionaries in southern France after a vast manhunt, authorities said.

The 47-year-old suspect - with no apparent links to Islamist extremism - was arrested about 100 metres from his home in a town not far from the scene of the attack on Thursday night, a gendarmerie press official said.

The official said reports that the suspect was a former member of the French military had not yet been confirmed, adding that investigators had uncovered information that contradicted a past military link. The suspect was not identified by name in keeping with French custom.

Firefighters and ambulances are seen in the village of Montferrier-sur-Lez, southern France
Firefighters and ambulances in the village (AP)

A masked intruder tied up two women at the retirement home for former missionaries in Africa. One of the women managed to call police, who found the victim, a 54-year-old employee, bound and tied up outside the building with three stab wounds, prosecutor Christophe Barret told a news conference before the arrest.

Barret said the suspect was believed to be someone "in the entourage of this retirement home".

The retirement residence is located in Montferrer-sur-Lez, just north of Montpellier. The suspect was arrested in Saint-Mathieu-de-Treviers, a few miles further north.

France has been in a state of emergency since the Paris attacks one year ago that killed 130. Some 130 police officers searched the area for the masked attacker on foot, in vehicles and by helicopter.

"There is no element linking the facts with Islamist terrorism," Barret said.