Corsican guerrillas take on Mafia: The nationalists demanding independence from Paris have a new aim, writes Julian Nundy in Ajaccio: tackling organised crime

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The Independent Online
NATIONALIST guerrillas in Corsica, apart from their main aim of self-rule from France, plan to concentrate their efforts on fighting organised crime in the island over the next few months, say nationalists.

While the public political organisations most usually linked to the illegal underground fighters of the banned National Liberation Front of Corsica (FLNC) deny all knowledge of the guerrillas' plans, it would be consistent with actions taken against criminals, particularly drug dealers, over the past few years. Summary executions of dealers have been justified with revolutionary logic as a way of cleansing Corsican society of harmful elements.

Nationalists are convinced that the French government has washed its hands of the Corsican problem and wants the islanders to sort things out among themselves. Modern nationalist violence, which dates back two decades, has been accompanied by a rise in petty crime.

On the evening and night of the Catholic Feast of the Assumption on 15 August, there were four hold-ups in this community of 250,000 people. Hooded gunmen robbed a hotel in San Bastiano, others held up a Parisian couple in their holiday villa, two robbed an exchange bureau of its cash, two others held up strollers in Ajaccio.

In another incident, gunmen sprayed a transformer with automatic fire near Cuttoli- Corticchiato plunging the Gravona valley near Ajaccio into darkness. The latter was probably carried out as an act of nationalist resistance against the state electricity company.

Apart from such incidents, Corsican crime can be innovative and spectacular.

Last August, a hijacked helicopter landed in front of an Air Inter airliner with 90 passengers just as it was about to take off from Bastia for Marseilles.

Hooded men opened the hold containing a consignment of cash and took off with around 7m francs ( pounds 788,000). The helicopter, hired earlier for a joy- ride, flew them to safety about 30 miles south of Bastia where an accomplice waited in a car.

There is often talk of a Mafia presence in Corsica and another helicopter-borne operation, when nationalist guerrillas flew to the small island of Cavallo, off Corsica's southern tip, to blow up a tourist complex under construction, was directed against what the guerrillas described as a Mafia investment.

Apart from isolated cases, however, there is little evidence of Mafia interest in an island whose small-scale economy presents only a limited potential for laundering funds or running a crime syndicate.

Marie Catherine Maroselli- Matteoli, an Ajaccio lawyer, said Corsican criminals, 'even if they have large financial means, are fundamentally different (from the Mafia) by the absence of direction or guiding vision coming from the Family'.

But a tradition of clannishness, village against village and family against family, has forged a strong bandit streak among the Corsicans. Edmond Simeoni, the best-known Corsican nationalist, said once that the Corsicans were a nation of shepherds, hinting that they were a peaceful lot aroused only by injustice inflicted by the mainland.

History does not bear him out. If there have been a dozen killings so far this year blamed on bandits or nationalists, the average number of murders each year in the last three decades of the last century was 56.

Last year, there were 40 murders and 180 other incidents in which arms were used. A prosecutor said in court that, if mainland France had been similarly afflicted, the metropolis would have seen 8,000 violent deaths last year.

What has affected crime on the island has been the rise in the number of arms since nationalist violence took off in the Seventies. With at least three groups conducting an underground campaign against the state, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between revolutionary acts and ordinary crime. In some cases, blatantly ordinary criminals claim a political motive.

Leo Battesti, a former FLNC fighter who was sentenced to nine years in jail in 1978 but now campaigns for an end to the guerrilla campaign, said last week that the atmosphere of insecurity had had a devastating effect on the island's young who often thought their choice of career was limited to 'the hood (of the clandestine guerrilla) or big- time banditry'.

THE French government is about to name the first female police chief for Corsica, the newspaper Le Figaro reported yesterday. Commissaire Mireille Ballestrazzi, 38, nicknamed the 'Ice Doll', is due to take up her new post, one of the toughest in the French police, next month.

(Photograph omitted)