Nimes, France - French authorities on Wednesday charged a 32-year-old British man with the brutal killing of a mother of three in what they believe was an attempted sexual assault that went wrong.

 Robert Plant was formally charged with aggravated murder after appearing before an examining magistrate in the southern city of Nimes, where the women's body was found on January 24.

 Nimes prosecutor Stephane Bertrand said the specific charge, which covers murders carried out to cover up or to facilitate another crime, reflected the fact that investigators believe Plant's initial intention was a sexual assault on the victim, 33-year-old Joudia Zimmat.

 Aggravated murder is punishable by the maximum possible sentence provided for in France: life in prison with a condition that the convict is not eligible for parole before 22 years. 

Bertrand said that during Wednesday's hearing Plant had neither denied nor admitted having been at the scene of the crime and had claimed that he had no memory of what had happened.

 "He was very calm and hardly spoke," Bertrand added. "He indicated that he would express himself later."

 Plant lived with his mother Esther 300 metres (yards) from where the woman's partly clothed body was found on January 24.

 He was arrested on Monday after police carrying out door-to-door enquiries noticed a resemblance to a man seen in the area around the time of the crime.

 Police subsequently revealed that he had failed to provide a plausible alibi and that DNA traces found on objects recovered from the crime scene matched his.

 Detectives also noticed marks on his hands that may have been caused by thorn scratches. The victim's badly beaten body was discovered in a copse covered in bramble bushes.

 Police have described the killing as a "slaughter." The victim suffered multiple stab wounds and serious damage to her skull, apparently inflicted by a box cutter-style knife and blood-marked stones found near her partly clothed corpse.

 She had suffered a sexual assault but had not been raped because, police believe, she tried to fight off her assailant.

 Plant's mother and her late husband Denis, a former telecoms executive, had retired to Nimes.

 Robert Plant, who was largely brought up in France as his father was working in Paris, moved to Nimes recently having spent time in Britain, according to friends of the family, which was originally from Chatham in Kent.

 Neighbours and acquaintances of the family have expressed shock at Plant's arrest, describing him as a gentle character who would have been incapable of such a savage act.

 The victim had three children, aged 3, 6 and 9 and lived in a different part of Nimes with her partner.

 A housewife of Tunisian origin, she regularly went running in Courbessac, a peaceful residential part of the city that is famous for its well-preserved Roman amphitheatre. - Sapa-AFP