A former French soldier suspected of killing three young men in the 1980s committed suicide in hospital early today.

The 56-year-old former commando was on trial for the murder of Irish hitch-hiker Trevor O'Keefe, who was found battered and strangled in a shallow grave in August 1987.

Police say Mr Chanal appears to have used a razor blade to sever an artery in his leg, despite being under round-the-clock guard. The accused man, who tried to kill himself earlier this year, had been on hunger strike since July.

Mr Chanal was accused of murdering three of eight young men who disappeared between 1980 and 1987 during a crime spree that terrified a small corner of northeastern France.

His trial was postponed after he tried to kill himself in May.

Seven of the men were army conscripts based in camps where he served at the time, and almost all vanished in a section of the Marne region, northeast of Paris, between three military garrisons, which became known as 'the triangle of death'.

Mr Chanal, who denied the murder charges, had already served a jail sentence for the rape and kidnapping of a young Hungarian man he picked up hitch-hiking in 1988. He received a ten year sentence for the attack, and was released in 1995 on probation.