Killers of Corsican prefect `confess' arrested

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The Independent Online
A MUCH-CRITICISED investigation into the murder of the most senior French official in Corsica - mysteriously blocked for 15 months - has abruptly come to life, with a series of arrests and confessions.

The breakthrough is directly connected to the scandal that engulfed the successor of the murdered man. Prefect Bernard Bonnet, who was sent to the island to "restore the rule of law" after the assassination of his predecessor, is in a Paris jail, accused of plotting the razing of two illegal beach restaurants.

However, it emerged yesterday it was Mr Bonnet who uncovered the name of the ring-leader of the assassination conspiracy and tipped off Paris just before his own arrest. In other words, the Corsican plot - which would already stretch the imagination of an airport thriller writer - continues to thicken. Over the past 10 days, Corsican police have arrested 12 people. Confronted with evidence from their mobile phone records that they were at or near the scene of the murder, four of them have confessed. The ring-leader is said to be Alain Ferrandi, owner of the Hertz concession at Ajaccio airport and leader of a fringe Corsican separatist group.

Mr Bonnet, who continues to deny all part in the restaurant burnings, was convinced that a nexus of politicians,separatists, police and criminals had blocked the inquiry into the murder of Prefect Claude Erignac in February last year. Several senior officers in the gendarmerie have admitted setting fire to the restaurants at the new prefect's request. They have told investigators that frustration at the failure of the murder inquiry drove the prefect, literally, to fight fire with fire.

The sudden leap forward in the murder investigation is no coincidence. Quite apart from the tip-off, received by Mr Bonnet from an informer, the government and the Corsican police have redoubled efforts to solve the Erignac murder since the scandal of the pyromaniac gendarmes broke four weeks ago.

Mr Bonnet's lawyer has suggested that he is ready to expose new facts about the criminal-political interference and police laxity in the murder inquiry. In a letter from prison to a journalist friend last week, Mr Bonnet said he was going to create "national sport" with revelations concerning the role of "two former ministers" in the obscurely related saga of the illegal beach restaurants.

He has offered the names of Francois Leotard, former head of the centre-right UDF and a former defence minister, and Jose Rossi, president of the Corsican regional assembly, head of the right-wing Democratie Liberale MPs in the National Assembly and a former industry minister.

The burning of the beach restaurants had, at first, seemed a serious political blow to the "clean hands" reputation of the Socialist Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin. It still has the potential to damage him, even though no evidence has emerged that Mr Bonnet's alleged actions were in any way directed from Paris.

The latest twists in the plot, however, seem to threaten equal embarrassment for the opposition centre-right parties, which have been trying to make political capital out of the affair. They forced a a debate in the National Assembly on Tuesday when they tabled a motion of censure of the government. But Mr Jospin was able to point to the new evidence of interference in Corsica's affairs by the opposition.

The alleged ring-leader in the Erignac assasination, Alain Ferrandi, was connected with a group of extremist separatists, who seemed to be as concerned with preserving the island's agricultural subsidy frauds as with achieving a break from France.

Records show Mr Ferrandi's mobile phone was heavily used near the murder scene when Mr Erignac was shot. Why it has taken 15 months for the police to uncover these elementary facts remains - like so many other things in Corsica - a mystery.