Rail bomb mystery deepensas blackmailers cut contact

5th March 2004, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, March 5 (AFP) - France faced an anxious waiting game Friday after the government said it had lost contact with a mysterious group calling itself AZF that claims to have planted bombs on the country's rail system.

PARIS, March 5 (AFP) - France faced an anxious waiting game Friday after the government said it had lost contact with a mysterious group calling itself AZF that claims to have planted bombs on the country's rail system.

An exhaustive search of all 32,000 kilometres (20,000) of national track failed to uncover anything suspicious Thursday, but anti-terrorist experts refused to rule out the possibility that the bombs were well hidden or that they are yet to be laid.

The unknown blackmailers, who communicated with the government by letters and messages in the personal columns of a national newspaper, were reported to have warned that they would break off contact for two weeks if news of their demand for more than USD 5 million became public.

"After that they told us they would again give us something to talk about - though we don't know whether that means they'll send another letter or actually do something," an unnamed official told Le Figaro newspaper.

The group, which is believed to consist of at least two men and a woman, has sent six letters to President Jacques Chirac and Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy expressing a series of vague grievances against French society and threatening to set off 10 bombs if the money is not paid.

To prove that it was serious, the group tipped off police two weeks ago to a bomb planted on a railway viaduct in central France, which on examination proved to be cleverly constructed and capable of destroying a long section of track.

The bomb's timing device consisted of a ball-bearing which on a given day would slip through a hole in a clockwork disc and fall to a second disc with two metal contact strips. The passage of a train would jog the ball-bearing so it completed the circuit and set off the explosion.

Investigators said the mechanism was first used by French resistance fighters in World War II and that its details could be found on several Internet sites.

Police admitted they are still no near establishing the profile of the blackmailers, though they did not think they were linked to any Islamic or nationalist cause.

According to officials there are four theories: that AZF are people with a specific grudge against the French state; that they are from the anarchist wing of the anti-globalisation movement; that they belong to a cult; or that they are common criminals simply trying to extort cash.

It seemed likely that the group named themselves after the AZF factory in the southern city of Toulouse that was destroyed in an explosion in September 2001, killing 30 people and injuring more than 1,000 others. The blast was officially described as an accident but caused enormous local anger.

"The one bomb that was found was laid on the Paris-to-Toulouse track, so there is a certain local context. And the Toulouse region ... has a history of sheltering anarchists and other agitators," said terrorist expert Rene-Georges Querry.

Controversy rumbled over the revelation of the blackmail threat in a regional newspaper Wednesday, with the interior ministry accusing the Depeche du Midi of wrecking chances of quickly resolving the case. However several anti-terrorism experts were quoted saying public knowledge would help identify the culprits.

The affair has taken on elements of a cheap thriller, with messages signed "Suzy" and "Big Wolf" placed in Liberation newspaper and a demand from AZF that the government land a helicopter on top of Paris's tallest skyscraper to await instructions for a ransom drop. The rendezvous never took place.

© AFP

                                                              Subject: France news

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