Bomb suspect caught in net of diplomacy

MARY DEJEVSKY

Paris

Abdelkrim Deneche, the 40-year-old Algerian wanted by France in connection with the Saint-Michel Metro station bombing four weeks ago, was still in a Swedish prison last night as the authorities decided whether to deport him and if so, where to.

He appears to be stuck in a legal limbo, between the Swedes, who have apparently accepted his alibi for the Paris bombing but continue to hold him "lest he disappears or commits a crime", and the French police, who are sufficiently confident of their case to have made him the subject of an international arrest warrant. This was handed to Swedish officials yesterday.

To the legal problems are added diplomatic ones. France, with its imminent plans to resume nuclear testing, is not Sweden's favourite country at present.

Nor are the countries natural soul-mates: the French and the Swedes view the world and handle their affairs quite differently. The French instinct to deal with tricky questions informally is the opposite of Sweden's instinct to dot the i's and cross the t's.

While French officials are said to be frustrated, the media and public seem in two minds.

There is a predisposition to believe Mr Deneche is, if not directly involved, then justifiably suspect. But there is a greater tendency to believe the police investigation has been bungled and that the Swedish tangle is the latest proof.

In order to judge whether or not the investigation has been bungled, however, answers are needed to a series of questions - answers that either do not exist or are being withheld.

The first and most obvious questions relate to Mr Deneche. Is his alibi - banking documents that he signed and a post office clerk who says she dealt with him - watertight, or do the French know more than the Swedes?

On the one hand, any terrorist worthy of the name would ensure he had an alibi. On the other, any operator as senior as Mr Deneche is reputed to be would be unlikely to get close enough to an attack to be directly implicated.

The second set of questions relates to the the Saint-Michel bombing, the blast near the Arc de Triomphe last week and the murder in Paris of an Algerian imam.

Do the authorities have any idea who committed them and what the motives were or not? Some people close to the police inquiry say they are still working completely in the dark. Others say that some police departments at least have a very good idea about who would have been responsible. They also say the French authorities had expected a terrorist campaign but had hoped to have thwarted it by a nationwide round-up of suspects in June.

The third set of questions relates to external factors: Does the inquiry have anything to do with Islamic groups known to be recruiting on French council estates - in which case a real question of domestic order is involved? Does it have to do with the political situation in Algeria and possible French involvement in trying to foster a settlement, in which case it impinges on delicate questions of diplomacy?

The final set of questions relates to the secrecy of the investigation and the reasons for it. Is so much being kept secret because there is no real progress? Is it because - as was reported soon after the investigation started - the police, the anti-terrorist squad, the intelligence services and the judiciary are working at cross purposes and keeping evidence from each other? Or is it because the authorities know who they are looking for and need to handle things with extreme care?

Unfortunately, what has emerged from the tangled tale of Mr Deneche, the French judge and the Swedish procurator supplies no answers to any of these questions. Meanwhile the bungling theory flourishes unchallenged.

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