Corsicans down tools in memory of prefect

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The island of Corsica will close down for 15 minutes this morning, in protest against the murder of the most senior French government official in the province last Friday night. John Lichfield in Paris reports.

Operation "le Morte" (dead island) - a cessation of all but the most essential activity, demanded by trades unions and most political parties - will be widely respected. Most Corsicans have been outraged and distressed by the assassination of Claude Erignac, the island's popular prefect, as he walked unprotected in the streets of Ajaccio.

This is the first time that the Mediterranean island's 24 years of mostly low-level, and frequently absurd, civil conflict has claimed such a senior victim. Two suspects, of Moroccan origin, remained in police custody yesterday. A third man arrested was freed. None of the island's jigsaw of mutually- loathing separatist groups have admitted responsibility for the attack.

The assassination of Mr Erignac, 59, as he was about to go to a concert with his wife, is assumed to be a product of the increasing disarray of the many factions seeking independence from France. It was widely interpreted on the island as a sign of the weakness, not the strength, of the separatist movement, which is expected to perform disastrously in local elections next month.

It may, none the less, signal the start of a more murderous phase in the conflict. Two weeks ago, one of the most militant nationalist groups - The National Front for the Liberation of Corsica, Historic Wing - announced that it was abandoning an eight-months-old ceasefire. But the political party associated with this group joined the general condemnation of Mr Erignac's murder at the weekend.

The rival "Habitual Wing" of the National Front for the Liberation of Corsica gave up violence long ago. The finger of blame points at a number of smaller groups, which have split from the nationalist mainstream in recent years.

The two Moroccans under questioning yesterday were arrested shortly after the murder on Friday night. Initial forensic tests produced no evidence that either of the men had recently fired a gun. Police are, however, working on the theory that the Moroccans, who are believed to be small-time criminals, may have been hired by one of the separatist groups.