France accused of covering up train gang attack

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Opposition politicians have accused the French government of covering up a sustained attack by a gang of 20 young people on a crowded train near Nice on New Year's Day.

The group robbed and sexually assaulted passengers at knifepoint, smashed windows and slashed seats. No information on the incident was released by the authorities, who announced that he New Year festivities had passed off without a widely feared resumption of the violence seen in deprived suburbs in November.

The Socialist former education and culture minister, Jack Lang, accused the government of "disinformation", and the Socialist Party said the Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, had imposed a "stupefying silence" on the attack. Details of the incident emerged only when two people appeared in court three days later, accused of robbery and sexual assault.

It was reported yesterday that more than 100 young people from deprived districts of Marseilles and Avignon had been escorted on to the train by police at Nice early on New Year's Day. The group, some of Arab or African origin and others white, had taken advantage of an offer from the French railways, the SNCF, to travel to Riviera resorts for New Year's Eve for only €1.20 (80p) return. After SNCF security officers left the train at St-Raphael, a gang of 20 terrorised passengers, stealing their wallets and phones and sexually assaulting two women. The train, bound for Marseilles and Lyon, was stopped at Les Arcs sur Argens while gendarmerie reinforcements were called. Six people were arrested.

M. Sarkozy blamed the SNCF yesterday, saying police had not been warned the bargain fares might attract trouble-makers.

After meeting SNCF officials to discuss the incident, the Interior Minister said he hoped to create a national railway police force with 1,000-1,500 officers.

He added that he would host a meeting next week with officials from the country's train, tram and subway systems to talk about ways to better co-ordinate transport security.