France puts Muslim militants on trial for bombings that killed eight

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The Independent Online
Thirty-eight Muslim militants went on trial in Paris yesterday, accused of providing logistical support for a bombing wave in France in which eight people died and more than 170 were injured.

The 38 are accused of helping members in Belgium and France of one of Algeria's most ruthless Islamic rebel groups, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), blamed by police for a series of bomb attacks in France between July and November 1995.

The accused face jail terms of up to 10 years for charges ranging from criminal conspiracy in connection with a terrorist organisation and trafficking in arms and identity documents, to violations of immigration law. The proceedings began with shouts by some of the accused that they had no hopes of a fair trial. "We have already been condemned," some of them yelled.

Most of those on trial are French-born young men who are the children of immigrants of North African Arab origin. A few are Frenchmen of European origin who have converted to Islam. One of the accused is a 69-year-old woman of dual Franco-Algerian nationality whose son-in-law is also on trial. Prosecutors say she lent other defendants a portable telephone and the use of her flat.

The bombing wave began on 25 July 1995, with the rush-hour explosion of a gas canister packed with black powder, nails and bolts on a suburban commuter train at the St Michel station in the heart of the Paris Latin Quarter. Eight-died and nearly 100 others were wounded in the blast, which was followed over the next three months by eight further attacks, two of which failed due to defective fuses.

The GIA said it staged the attacks, accusing France of backing the Algerian authorities in a war with Islamic rebels which began after Algiers cancelled the 1992 general election, which fundamentalist Muslims were poised to win. At least 65,000 people have died in Algeria in the conflict.

Another four people were killed and dozens more injured in a further bombing on the same Paris train line in December 1996, but that attack was not included on the charge-sheet.

Few of the accused were in custody before the trial, and only 35 of the 38 accused were in the Paris criminal court for the first day of the proceedings. The other three charged individuals have never been found by police and are being tried in absentia.

The trial is the first to be held in connection with the 1995 bombings, although none of the defendants is accused of direct involvement in the attacks.

Prosecutors say the accused took orders from GIA leader Djamel Zitouni in Algeria. The say the ringleader of the French support group is Ali Touchent, alias Tarek, 30, who is still sought by police. His deputy, Safe Bourada, 27, is to be questioned from Tuesday on allegations that he recruited young activists for the network.

These included Khaled Kelkal, whose fingerprints were found on a bomb aimed at the high-speed Paris-Lyon train, which had 800 people on board. The bomb failed to go off. Kelkal was shot dead by police in September 1995.

The prosecution says several of the accused were trained by Islamic guerrillas in Afghanistan or Bosnia.

Under the French system, the defendants are not required to plead guilty or not guilty at this stage. But their lawyers have argued unsuccessfully that the trial should be delayed until those who actually placed the bombs are formally identified.