Byline: PAUL PALMER
THE DESERT city of Marrakesh, its very name redolent of the tumbledown Medina and a louche, exotic existence, has long been a magnet for well-heeled Brits. Only this summer, at the height of their marital travails, David and Victoria Beckham, materialistic arbiters of what is new and hip, took refuge from the world's media within the Moroccan city's walls.
It is precisely the sort of high-profile celebrity presence, complete with bodyguards and limousines, that has led to Marrakesh being hailed as the "new St Tropez", a city where Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss go shopping in the souks and where designer Jasper Conran has a home. And where, in their fashionable and gilded wake, the London social butterflies continue to flock, desperate to immerse themselves in the city's entrancing exclusivity.
But this week the British community in Marrakesh is living in a state of near-terror. In the past few weeks, the Evening Standard can reveal, a series of terrifying knife attacks on glamorous British women have taken place there. These incidents, which the victims claim the Moroccan authorities are covering up, have blighted the charm of this alluring oasis. Even worse, a killer - possibly a serial killer - is on the loose.
ONCE, this captivating city was a well-kept secret, where desirable but derelict houses in the old quarter could be picked up for less than [pounds sterling]100,000.
With the city now transformed into one of the world's most fashionable destinations, prices have rocketed, rental villas are at almost Tuscan prices, the largest and grandest houses in the ancient quarter costing as much as [pounds sterling]8,000 a week.
Regular visitors, drawn by an exotic "house party" scene among the converted kasbahs, replete with tiled courtyards and fountains, include Camilla Parker Bowles's sister, Annabel Elliot, and Lady Leonora Lichfield, the Duke of Westminster's sister and ex-wife of Royal photographer Patrick. Among more permanent residents, French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent has had a house in the city for more than 20 years.
Later this year, Sir Richard Branson is set to open his exclusive new hotel, Kasbah Tamadot, a short drive from the city. Branson is confident that, such is the demand among British visitors, that his latest venture is a guaranteed success.
But beneath the glamour, there is a very different story. In the past two months, two British women have had lucky escapes after encounters with what a knife-wielding maniac. In the first incident, a married British woman from London awoke in the bedroom of her rented house in the city to find the man standing over her bed.
The woman, in her mid-fifties, whose name is known to the Evening Standard but who is too traumatised to be identified, has worked in the fashion business in Britain but keeps a low social profile in Marrakesh. On waking to find the man in the room, her screams alerted her husband, who was with friends elsewhere in the house, and the assailant fled.
Around the same time, and a short walk away, another English woman - also connected, I am told, to the fashion business - endured the same ordeal. She, too, awoke to find a man, who matches the description of the first intruder, in her bedroom. Once again, her screams caused the attacker to flee.
Both women can count themselves extremely lucky. Because a third victim, Virve Hirvensalo, a Finnish woman in her mid-forties and an acquaintance of both the English women, was not so fortunate. …