French sources said last night that one of the three police photofit pictures of "important witnesses" to the Paris train bombing had been identified by the Algerian intelligence service. He was reported to be a known Islamic extremist, probably a member of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), the most ruthless of the Algerian terrorist organisations, and the one responsible for the Air France hijacking last Christmas.
The man identified - but not yet named - was spotted on the day of the bombing at a neighbouring RER train station, where he was seen to give a sign like a victory salute on hearing the dull thud that turned out to be the Saint-Michel explosion. The bomb killed seven people and injured more than 80. Sixteen are still in hospital.
This confirmation, if corroborated, will be welcome news to French investigators who seemed to have few firm leads more than a week after the explosion. The inquiry is already running into controversy.
The first point of contention was the arrest of a Tunisian in Paris on Tuesday, apparently after a tip-off following the release of the photofit pictures. First reports said that he was carrying a videocassette illustrating ways of making bombs similar to the one that was planted in the metro train. The French media, however, seemed sceptical. The French news service, Agence France-Presse, played it down.
In the event, the man was released yesterday without charge. AFP did report in some detail the arrest by French police of a Moroccan man in Trieste. He, too, was said to have been carrying a cassette on bomb-making methods, said to have been supplied to him in Zagreb.
The left-of-centre French media has been highly critical of the distribution of the photofit pictures, saying they gave carte blanche for the detention of any young man of north African appearance (the majority of the almost 80,000 people stopped or detained across France since the bombing have been of north African appearance).
For this reason, some reports say, the release of the pictures was opposed by the judge leading the investigation, Jean-Francois Ricard, though it was finally authorised by the Interior Minister, Jean-Louis Debre.
So far, only three admissions of responsibility have been made public: two of them from the Armed Islamic Group and the third from a hitherto unknown Algerian group. But the scientific analysis of the wreckage of the suburban train, which it was hoped would help identify the culprits, has taken much longer than expected.
One reason is that the first firemen on the scene used extinguishers to put out the blaze, destroying or confusing much of the chemical evidence. Preliminary findings reportedly suggested a nitrate derivative that is safer to handle than nitroglycerine. Experts said the explosive might be similar to a substance used by Hizbollah extremists in the late 1980s.