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French railways bomb hunt:10,000 search for explosives

PARIS, March 4 (AFP) – Thousands of police and railway workers combed the French railway network in a fruitless search of bombs Thursday, as intelligence agents sought to identify the unknown group that is threatening to set off a series of explosions unless the government pays millions of dollars.

Experts on terrorism were studying the blackmail notes signed with the initials AZF which were sent to the government over recent weeks, as well as the components of a home-made explosive device planted on a railway viaduct in central France.

The most plausible theory was that the group, which described itself in one letter as a “pressure group of a terrorist nature linked to a secularist brotherhood,” was motivated by political ideology of the far left or the far right, experts said.

But they were also looking at possible links with the AZF chemical factory which exploded in September 2001 in the southern city of Toulouse, killing 30 people and injuring more than 1,000 others. The blast, officially described as an accident, created enormous local resentment.

Ten thousand railway staff led the exhaustive task of scouring 32,500 kilometres (20,000 miles) of tracks in search of more devices that may have been laid by AZF.

The search was over by early afternoon with no trace found, though officials admitted a well-hidden bomb could have avoided detection.

Trains were running as normal, and most passengers displayed either indifference or resignation at the risk of an explosion.

“I have more chance of breaking my leg getting on the train than being blown up by a bomb – if there is one,” said businessman Marc Schroder at the Gare du Nord in Paris.

Six letters were sent to President Jacques Chirac and Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy from mid-December, warning that 10 bombs equipped with timers would go off at intervals on the railway system if the government did not hand over separate sums of USD 4 million and EUR 1 million.

The government decided to take the threats seriously, especially after one of the messages tipped off police to the bomb on the viaduct near the city of Limoges. The device, which was in a plastic Tupperware box, was cleverly put together and powerful enough to rip up a section of track, police said.

A judicial investigation has been launched under France’s top anti-terrorist judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere, and both the domestic intelligence agency DST and the anti-terrorist section of the national police are devoting considerable resources into tracking the culprits.

The interior ministry, which had wanted to keep the investigations under wraps, reacted angrily when news of the bomb threat was broken in the French press on Wednesday. It said public knowledge of the affair could jeopardise its attempts to foil the AZF plot.

The government had a number of contacts with the blackmailers during the month of February, corresponding via the personal columns of the left-wing daily Liberation. In a series of notes, AZF identified itself by the name
“Suzy” and the government by “Le grand loup” — or “big wolf.”

Officials believe the group displayed an amateurish taste for melodrama when it asked the government on February 20 to land a helicopter on the top of Paris’s tallest skyscraper, the Montparnasse tower, where it should await instructions for a ransom drop.

The rendezvous was called off when the government indicated it was impractical. A second rendezvous was arranged for Monday at a field near the town of Montargis, 100 kilometres (65 miles) south of Paris, but this was also abandoned when agents were unable to identify the map-location.


                                                              Subject: France news