Gang 'switched train signals to help refugees'

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The Independent Online

A gang of five Romanians suspected of halting trains with railway signalling devices to allow asylum-seekers to sneak aboard and enter Britain illegally has been arrested by French police.

A gang of five Romanians suspected of halting trains with railway signalling devices to allow asylum-seekers to sneak aboard and enter Britain illegally has been arrested by French police.

Police said the Romanians were arrested after raids by 150 officers in areas of northern France through which trains pass before reaching the Channel Tunnel.

The men were arrested on Friday night on suspicion of tampering with railway signals. They were detained after a freight train was stopped near Hazebrouck, about 25 miles from the Channel Tunnel. Police believe they may have been stopping one or two trains a week.

In one case, 30 immigrants were prevented from boarding a freight train and sent to the Sangatte Red Cross camp on the outskirts of Calais, near the tunnel entrance.

Some of the signalling devices were believed to be home-made and could have put passengers' lives at risk. Although the gang selected goods trains, Eurostar passenger vehicles travelled across the same lines and safety experts thought the signalling interference could have caused a high-speed crash. One expert said interfering with the signals was highly dangerous, adding that freight train wagons were more vulnerable to that type of illegal activity.

The rail tunnel operating company, Eurotunnel, wants France to close the Sangatte camp, home to more than 1,000 asylum-seekers who are mainly of Iraqi and Afghan origin, and many of whom have their sights set on Britain.

Last month, about 100 immigrants stormed the tunnel entrance in one of the most high-profile attempts by a group of illegal immigrants to reach Britain. French police said the suspects who were aiding illegal entry to Britain may have been active on the trains network for several months.

Christian Wolmar, of Rail magazine, suggested that the suspects might have worked on the railway service in Romania. "They would not have needed a particularly sophisticated piece of equipment ­ it is quite easy to sort out these things [signals]. But they would need to know a little bit about railways," Mr Wolmar said.

The men may face charges of aiding and abetting the travel of illegal immigrants.

In the past week, British and French ministers have met to discuss ways of tackling the latest wave of cross-Channel immigration. The two governments agreed to keep open the Sangatte centre while a longer-term solution was sought.

The British Government will this week give the first smart cards to asylum-seekers. The photo identity cards are part of a scheme to stop illegal working and to keep track of thousands of refugees who disappear in Britain.

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