French rail bomb gang suspects released
PARIS, March 28 (AFP) - French police and intelligence officials are urgently looking for leads to a mysterious group before it makes good on its threat to unleash bomb attacks on the railways that will surpass Madrid's March 11 bombing.
So far, the only real clues authorities have to go on are two unexploded bombs that underline the seriousness of the menace posed by the group, which calls itself AZF.
The devices – one found last Wednesday and the other on February 21, both next to busy railways – displayed such a sophisticated knowledge of explosives that investigators believe they could only have been made by a former soldier or an engineer.
AZF last Friday sent a letter to the French interior ministry saying it was suspending its threat because of “technical, logistical and other weaknesses” it was addressing, but that once it returned with a demand for money to end the bomb threat it must be paid “without discussion”.
The group, which initially carried on an exchange with authorities through coded messages in newspaper classified advertisements after first surfacing in mid-December, has set its price at USD 4 million and EUR 2 million in cash.
“As of today there are no more bombs on the French railway system capable of functioning,” it said in the letter.
But, it warned, it was capable of making sure “France will surpass ingloriously the sad records of Spain” – a reference to the March 11 train bombings thought to have been carried out by Al-Qaeda that killed 190 people.
A Sunday newspaper, Le Journal du Dimanche, quoted unidentified police officials as saying they believed they were dealing with two or three individuals, one of whom was a bomb expert.
Their aim was thought to be simple extortion and not radical militancy in the pursuit of political goals.
However, as one investigating magistrate was quoted as saying: “In fact, there is no serious lead, which means we have to double-check everything.”
Three people – an amateur pilot, his girlfriend and an antiques dealer – were detained by anti-terrorist officials Thursday, but were released without charge Saturday after questioning and searches determined they had nothing to do with the threat.
A police source said the three “never moved at the times that those in AZF would have had to” and that the woman’s voice was not the one in recorded telephone calls made by the blackmailers.
Le Journal du Dimanche said that, although the bomb found Wednesday was more crudely built than the one found in February after a tip-off by AZF, both were made by the same person.
The devices comprised plastic containers holding nitrate fuel connected to detonators and timing units.
The one found Wednesday by a state rail employee had a loose wire, but it was not clear if that was deliberately done by AZF or if it had simply come loose.
Each discovery triggered searches of France’s 32,500 kilometres (20,000 miles) of railway lines.
The initials AZF were seen as significant because it was the name of a chemical factory that blew up in the southwestern city of Toulouse in September 2001, killing 30 people and injuring more than 1,000 others.
The blast, officially described as an accident, created enormous local resentment.
In a previous message, the group described itself as a “pressure group of a terrorist nature linked to a secularist brotherhood,” and in the last letter it added to the confusion, saying its “main aim is to deliver a decisive blow to the corrupt spirit which dictates most human actions today.
“We believe the means at our disposal permits this and we will carry it through to the end. If not, the Earth will do it itself in a much more brutal fashion,” it said.
On Thursday officials said there had been renewed contact with the group via the personal columns of the newspaper Liberation.
In February the two sides communicated via messages signed “Suzi” and “The big wolf”, leading to a failed ransom drop at an airfield south of Paris.
Subject: French news