Official in Corsican bandit plot 's ex-prefect in custody

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The Independent Online
THE SENIOR French civil servant who had governed Corsica for the last 16 months was placed in indefinite custody yesterday, suspected of plotting the fire-bombing of an illegal beach restaurant.

Six other men - including five of the most senior gendarmerie officers on the island - are now in custody for their part in a seemingly absurd affair which has seriously damaged, and could yet destroy, Lionel Jospin's government.

Bernard Bonnet, the former prefect of Corsica - who was dismissed on Monday - has admitted to judicial investigators that he did have some prior knowledge of plans to destroy several illegal shack restaurants by what were, in effect, acts of state terrorism. The thinking behind the attacks remains opaque - even bizarre.

It seems that Mr Bonnet, and the colonel in charge of the gendarmerie in Corsica, thought that the destruction of the defiantly illegal restaurants would be a blow for French state power. At the same time, they hoped to pin the blame on extreme Corsican nationalists.

The huge outstanding question is whether or not Mr Bonnet, and an elite gendarmerie unit which he created last year, acted on their own authority. The prefect reported directly to the office of the Prime Minister, Mr Jospin. The young examining magistrate in charge of the case is expected to fly to Paris next week to interview the prime ministerial advisers who deal with Corsica.

If evidence emerges that they knew, even in general terms, about the planned attacks, Mr Jospin could be forced to resign, but this seems unlikely. The Prime Minister, regarded as one of the most honest and straight-dealing of French politicians, has adamantly denied that he - or any of his officials - had any part in such a hare-brained scheme.

The fate of his government rests in the hands of an inexperienced examining magistrate, who inherited the case because his wife - also a magistrate - is on maternity leave.

But Patrice Camberou, 31, who usually specialises in family law, has impressed Corsicans with his speedy and determined handling of the case so far.