Bomb suspect on run after forest shoot-out

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More than 700 police, backed by paratroops, began a hunt yesterday in forests west of Lyon for Khaled Kelkal, the 24-year-old man wanted in connection with at least one of the recent bomb attacks in France, writes Mary Dejevsky. The police operation was mounted after a late-night shooting in which a close relative of Mr Kelkal's was seriously injured.

Algerian-born Mr Kelkal has been France's most wanted man since his fingerprints were identified on the bomb planted on the high-speed train line near Lyon last month. He has been on the run since March, when he fled after a shooting incident in which three policemen were injured.

Yesterday's operation was mounted after three men were arrested during the night near Vaulx-en-Velin, close to where the railway bomb was planted. A fourth man, believed to be Mr Kelkal, escaped. Two of the men were caught after a car chase; the third was already in the forest, sleeping rough.

One of the three men, named only as Karim, was identified after being injured during his arrest. Reports described him as a relative of the wanted man. He is said to have opened fire with a shotgun when he saw police approaching.

According to police, there was evidence that two men had been living in the forest for some time. Three hundred rounds of ammunition, two shotguns and a Koran were said to have been found at the site, along with a timing device of the sort that could be used to detonate a bomb.

The head of police operations, General Andre Laurent, confirmed that the fourth man "could be Kelkal" but could not be certain.

Mr Kelkal has eluded police on at least three occasions - the first time in March, after the gun fight near Lyon in which three police were injured; then during a sweep of his local area two weeks ago, and now yesterday. There have been reports of him being sighted in Nancy in the east and Quimper in the west, but successive raids in the Lyon and Marseilles areas indicated that police believed he was still close to home.

The authorities have been sharply criticised for their failure to solve the bomb attacks. Last week Le Monde published an open letter, signed with the pseudonym Cicero, representing a number of police officials and judicial figures, and taking the investigation to task.