New twist in missing beauty queen mystery gripping France

TOULOUSE, France - Police probing the disappearance of a beauty queen and her mother say they suspect foul play after it emerged her father's lover also went missing, in a new twist to a mystery that has gripped France.

The disappearance of the father's Brazilian mistress in 2004 emerged as part of the investigation and "made us lean towards a criminal theory," a source close to the probe told AFP Friday.

Suspicions were first raised on July 14 when 19-year-old Allison Benitez, who was due to take part in a high-profile regional beauty contest, and her mother Marie-Josee suddenly disappeared from their home in the southwestern city of Perpignan.

Just over three weeks later, the father and husband Francisco Benitez - a member of France's famed Foreign Legion elite army unit - hanged himself in his barracks after writing a suicide note proclaiming his innocence.

Then it emerged Benitez had been questioned over the disappearance in 2004 of his Brazilian mistress Simone de Oliveira Alves in Nimes - not far from Perpignan. She has not been seen since.

The investigation into her disappearance has now been officially re-opened on suspicion of "abduction and illegal confinement", according to Eric Emmanuelidis, a Nimes prosecutor involved in the case.

Authorities have not yet officially linked the two cases, but suspect foul play in both disappearances.

Allison had been due to take part in the Miss Roussillon contest, due to take place on Sunday, which elects a representative for a region of the southwest who will then go on to compete to become Miss France.

According to her father's statements to the police, Allison and her mother left their home on July 14 with suitcases, without any explanation. The couple was in the process of separating.

They said they were going to the nearby city of Toulouse. But since then, their mobile phones have been turned off and they have taken no money out of their accounts.

Their case bears similarities with that of Simone, who went missing on the evening of November 29, 2004.

The Brazilian had no apparent reason to disappear and abandon her four children. As with Allison and her mother, one of the last signs of life was a text announcing her departure.

In 2004, Benitez was stationed in Nimes, after a career that saw him intervene in the Gulf, former Yugoslavia and in parts of Africa.

By that time his relationship with Allison's mother was in trouble. People close to Simone say she did not know he was married, and disappeared after finding out.

Just like with Allison and Marie-Josee's disappearance, Benitez did not alert police for a while.

Then he told officers that he had quarrelled with Simone, she had left and sent him a text to say she was breaking up with him.