Troops ride rails to stop saboteurs

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TORNADO AIRCRAFT, military satellites and armoured helicopters were being used to patrol 25,000 miles of Germany's railways yesterday in an effort to thwart extortionists who have caused three train accidents, including a derailment, in the past few days.

On Saturday, a train narrowly escaped derailment in Berlin after it went over concrete blocks placed on the tracks. The previous day a freight train carrying paper went off the tracks. The bolts fixing the rails to the concrete sleepers had been loosened.Earlier in the week, a passenger train collided with trees that had been put across the tracks in northern Germany.

A group calling itself "Friends of the Railways" has sent four letters in the past month to the operating company Deutsche Bahn, demanding 10m marks (pounds 3.6m). Police have no idea who is behind the group, or even if the various attacks were carried out by the same people.

At the start of the holiday rush, the authorities are taking no chances. Luftwaffe Tornadoes, fitted out with night vision scopes, were called in yesterday to guard the high-speed rail lines, especially the stretch between Hanover and Berlin. Since the opening of this section in September, it has been impeded with concrete blocks and other obstacles 10 times. The trains travel on it at up to 125mph. From yesterday, border troops with long-range sensors have been travelling in the cabin, looking for dangers ahead.

Military satellites 500 miles above are taking photographs of the main lines and border troop helicopters with night vision scopes are also being used.

Deutsche Bahn was criticised for not informing the public and the railway union about the dangers until late last week. The company appears to have judged the incidents as the work of pranksters.

German extortionists frequently prey on large corporations. The food company Nestle recently suffered a spate of supermarket poisonings, and rocks were hurled at Mercedes cars. The threat to trains, though, is by far the most serious. It comes only six months after the derailment of a train at Eschede, north of Hanover, which caused the death of 101 people. Faulty wheels were blamed for that disaster.