Chirac damns Corsica's killers

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President Jacques Chirac yesterday blamed a murderous cocktail of organised crime and political extremism for the assassination of the French Government's most senior official in Corsica last week.

Investigators believe that Claude Erignac, the island's Prefect, may have been targeted because of his stand against crime and corruption in Corsica, rather than as a political symbol of the French state.

Mr Chirac, speaking at a memorial ceremony in Ajaccio, declared the assassins to be "enemies of the Republic" who would be ruthlessly hunted down. He said the murder of Mr Erignac, the most senior victim to date of Corsica's 24-year old civil conflict, flowed from a mixture of "murderous folly, worst-case politics and a Mafia-like drift" in the island's splintered independence movement.

Several other French politicians in recent days have broken a virtual taboo on discussing the alleged links between separatist factions and the island's clannish organised crime groups.

Mr Erignac had taken two decisions which might, according to the police, have made him a target. He intervened to prevent the sale of an old fort in Bonifacio to a buyer who wanted to convert it into a hotel and casino. He also opposed an increase in the number of slot-machines in the casino in Ajaccio.

Police arrested 12 people yesterday in raids on suspected extremist hide-outs. Two young men of Moroccan origin, arrested soon after the murder on Friday night, are still in custody.

John Lichfield, Paris