Gendarmes lost for words as terrorists get away

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The Independent Online
The plot would have graced a script starring Inspector Clouseau: British secret agents track down a gang of suspected terrorists hiding in a flat in Belgravia, central London. In the dead of night the potential killers and bombers climb into two c ars and are allegedly seen placing suspicious looking parcels into the vehicles.

The gang then heads for Dover closely tailed by officers from MI5 and Special Branch. On arrival, the men board a ferry heading for Calais.

In the spirit of international co-operation and part of the fight against world-wide crime, the British officers send an urgent fax to their French colleagues warning of the looming danger.

Unaware, the suspects arrive at Calais, but sadly for the forces of law and order they are not greeted by dozens of armed Gendarmerie. Instead the French police arrive several hours after the ferry has docked and the gang fled.

This apparent botch-up on Christmas Eve occured after the fax was sent to the police headquarters in Paris, where it lay unattended for several hours until a translator was located. By the time the message was deciphered and the Calais police informed, it was too late.

For once this story of supposed police incompetence appeared not in the British press, but in the mass circulation French newspaper France Soir.

However, the French are unhappy about the interpretation of events and yesterday their security sources claimed the British were to blame - the fax was allegedly sent to the wrong office. Whatever the truth, France's Ministry of the Interior yesterday set up an inquiry to look at the newspaper's allegations.

The case is particularly relevant because the suspects were reportedly Algerian Islamic fundamentalists from the group involved in the Air France hijack at Marseilles airport last week, in which four terrorists and three passengers were killed.

The French police refused to comment about the fax affair and Scotland Yard yesterday kept a diplomatic silence.