PARIS, March 3 (AFP) – The French government is being blackmailed by a previously unknown group which has planted at least one bomb on the country’s railway system and is demanding a ransom of more than USD 5 million, the interior ministry said Wednesday.
Since December a group calling itself AZF has sent six letters to President Jacques Chirac and Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, condemning France’s political and economic establishment and threatening to explode 10 bombs on the railways unless the money is paid.
The government said it is taking the threat seriously and has activated the anti terrorist section of the police as well as the domestic intelligence agency DST. A judicial investigation has been set up under the country’s top anti terrorist judge Jean Louis Bruguiere.
No group called AZF is known to the authorities, but it may be significant that AZF was the name of a chemical factory that blew up in the southern city of Toulouse in September 2001, killing 30 people and injuring around 1,000 others. The accident caused enormous local anger.
Police said there was not believed to be any link with Islamic terrorism.
The first letter, received on December 14, contained a series of denunciations of “politicians more pre occupied with themselves than with the state … a corrupt economy … and a reductive education system” and ended with the words, “You will hear from us again soon.”
In subsequent messages AZF described itself as a “pressure group of a terrorist nature.” It said that 10 devices had been planted across the railway network, and that these had been fitted with timers to go off at intervals unless USD 4 million and
EUR 1 million were handed over.
A letter received on February 21 indicated that police would find a bomb planted by the Paris to Toulouse railway line at a point in central France. “After tests the device was shown to be dangerous in as much as it could have smashed the track,” the interior ministry said.
The bomb was in a round, white plastic container and consisted of a nitrate fuel mix. “It was a device worthy of an explosives expert or at least a very gifted student,” an official said. “However, voluntarily or accidentally it could not have gone off.”
The device was removed and exploded in test conditions next to a section of railway track, which it blew 25 metres into the air, the official said.
An attempt to make a rendez vous with AZF on Monday had to be aborted because of confusion over a map location stipulated by the blackmailers, officials said.
The government received telephone instructions to drop the ransom money in bags from a helicopter over a tarpaulin in a field near the town of Montargis, 100 kilometres (65 miles) south of Paris, but agents were unable to find the spot and gave up.
The interior ministry issued a statement to newspaper and broadcast editors Tuesday evening confirming the existence of the blackmail letters and asking for “confidentiality.” However the news was broken by at least one newspaper Wednesday.
“All branches of the police and gendarmes are mobilised on this affair. They are trying to unravel it with one single imperative: the safety of the public,” the ministry said.
Subject: France news