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France doubles military on anti-terror duty

PARIS, March 19 (AFP) – France said Thursday it had doubled the number of military personnel on security duty since raising its terror alert rating, as investigators continued to probe a threat from the unknown “Servants of Allah”.

But rail traffic across northern France was severely disrupted after police shut down a major line following a threatening phone call a shadowy group calling itself AZF, only to find an empty oxygen bottle on the tracks north of Paris.

Meanwhile, after meeting with parliamentary leaders from across the political spectrum, Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin said he would bring the parties together once a month for a update on terror risks and responses.

Defence ministry spokesman Jean-Francois Bureau said some 1,500 military personnel, including 500 in Paris, were now on duty within the framework of the Vigipirate anti-terrorism plan, a number doubled since last week.

Air and sea patrols have been increased and gendarmes redeployed to “certain sensitive sites” in the wake of last week’s deadly train bombings in Madrid, Bureau told reporters.

After the March 11 attacks in the Spanish capital, France raised its terror alert to ‘red’, its second-highest level, in train stations and airports, and to ‘orange,’ level three of four, everywhere else.

Then on Tuesday, just five days after the Madrid blasts and amid heightened security fears across Europe, a previously unknown group threatened to attack France unless it repeals a law banning the Islamic headscarf in state schools.

The group, calling itself “Servants of Allah, the Powerful and Wise One”, said in a two-page letter to Raffarin that it would “ask Allah to sow the seeds of terror in the hearts of the French.”

After Raffarin met with political leaders to discuss the threat, government spokesman Jean-Francois Cope said such meetings would be organized monthly “as long as circumstances require it, with emergency meetings as needed.”

After the meeting, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy said it was “very reassuring for our compatriots to see that no matter what our political opinions may be, the French democracy is presenting a united front in the face of terrorist threats.”

When asked about the ongoing probe, Sarkozy said that references in the “Servants of Allah” letter to Charles Martel, who defeated the Arabs at Poitiers in the year 732, “could make one think of certain small groups”.

But he did not elaborate and cautioned that it was “too early to confirm” any hypothesis about the mysterious group’s origins or intentions.

In recent weeks, France’s national railway SNCF has also come under threat from a shadowy group calling itself AZF, which said it would set off explosive devices on the rails unless Paris paid it more than USD 5 million.

On Thursday the group made a threatening phone call, telling police to “look between the rails” in the area near Villiers and Garges-les-Gonesse, two towns northeast of the capital.

Police immediately evacuated the station in Garges-les-Gonesse, and both high-speed and suburban rail traffic was cut off from the Gare du Nord in Paris for nearly three hours, regional officials said.

But the suspension in service caused massive delays throughout the evening rush hour on all lines running north of the capital.

Bomb defusal experts rushed to the scene and uncovered the empty oxygen bottle about 500 meters (yards) from the Garges-les-Gonesse station.

AZF issued a new threat last weekend, saying it would strike targets along France’s extensive railways, as well as at “three symbolic sites outside the railways”, if it were not paid, sources close to the investigation said.AZF has “increased its ransom amount” in its new demands, the sources told AFP, declining to give a figure.

The earlier demand – four million dollars and EUR 1 million – was relatively small, drawing suspicion that AZF comprised only a few members.

To show the seriousness of its claims, AZF tipped off French police last month to the location of a bomb, considered by police to be “sophisticated, worthy of an explosives expert.”


                                                              Subject: France news