PARIS, March 26 (AFP) – French anti-terrorist police were Friday questioning three people including an amateur pilot and an antiques dealer in connection with a series of bomb threats and demands for money made by a mysterious group calling itself AZF.
The three, who also include the pilot’s girlfriend, were detained on Thursday evening at locations in Paris and in the Loiret department, 80 kilometres (50 miles) south of the capital, which was the scene of a failed ransom drop on March 1.
According to police, the suspects have been under surveillance after being spotted near points specified by AZF in its communications with the government – notably an airfield at Lognes in the eastern Paris outskirts which was proposed for a second abortive drop on March 12.
On both occasions the government was responding to instructions from AZF for the handing over of several million euros in cash, though it remains unclear whether it was serious about paying the money or trying to lure AZF members into a trap.
The pilot took off from the Lognes airfield at the time the money was supposed to be handed over, police said.
However they admitted that they had little evidence against the three. “It is a lead we wanted to clear up. We do not have many elements,” one official said.
The arrests came a day after AZF announced in a letter to the interior ministry that it is “suspending its action” as a result of logistical difficulties, but warned that it would return once these have been overcome to threaten attacks that would exceed the March 11 bombings in Madrid.
The existence of the previously unknown group was revealed at the start of March when the government said it had received a series of missives threatening explosions on the country’s rail network if a payment of several million euros was not made over.
To prove its credentials the group tipped police off to a device hidden on a viaduct in central France which when detonated in test conditions proved to be powerful enough to rip up a long section of track. A similar device discovered Wednesday southeast of Paris was being examined by forensic experts.
Government officials remain perplexed about the identity and motivation of the blackmailers, though they have ruled out any connection with classic terrorism of the Islamist, far-left or far-right types.
Specialists who have examined the letters and a series of messages placed in the personal columns of Liberation newspaper believe one of the blackmailers may be a former soldier.
This suspicion is strengthened by the professionalism of the first bomb – which included a complicated timing device – as well the group’s familiarity with GPS satellite technology for fixing the location of its proposed ransom drops.
However following Thursday’s announcement that it is temporarily lifting its threats, there was considerable debate in the national press over the true extent of the AZF danger.
“Manipulation or provocation?” headlined France-Soir newspaper. “This murky affair leaves a number of mysteries in its wake. Did it ever exist or was it one huge set-up?”
“Nothing has been established with any certainty about the protagonists and that leaves open the hope that behind it all there is nothing but a group of provocateurs,” said Liberation.
In an early message, AZF described itself as “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.
The group said it would return when it had made good certain technical problems. “So when we next make our demands, pay up without making a fuss … or else France will surpass ingloriously the sad records set in Spain,” it said in reference to the 190 people killed in the Madrid train attacks.
Subject: France news