French ministers in crisis talks after latest bus attack

A 26-year-old woman is critically ill in a Marseilles hospital after she suffered 70 per cent burns when teenagers poured petrol inside the bus on which she was travelling and set fire to it. Doctors said that if Mama Galledou, a student, survives, she will be maimed for life.

The attack on Saturday night came on the anniversary of last year's rioting in French suburbs and prompted bus drivers in Marseilles to go on strike. The Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, called ministers to his office for an emergency meeting on transport safety.

Politicians of all parties expressed horror at the arson attack but also seized on its potential as ammunition for the 2007 presidential race.

A man who rescued Ms Galledou from the burning bus described her "skin peeling from her body like a glove". The man, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said "she's black and she was wearing nylon trousers. Her skin came off and she became white. She could not stand, she could not sit, it was true horror."

The usually quiet Lilas area of north-east Marseilles, where the attack happened, is not known for extreme rates of delinquency but it is part of the swath of high-rise housing north of Marseilles - the area that produced the footballer Zinedine Zidane - with high unemployment and crime.

According to the Elysée Palace, President Jacques Chirac phoned Ms Galledou's parents to express "his horror in the face of this ignoble act". The Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, also phoned the couple and ordered two companies of riot police to the Lilas area.

There were no indications that the attack was racially motivated and the colour of the hooded youths who poured petrol in the bus was not immediately known. The torching of the bus, which had about 10 people on board when it was ambused by four youths, is likely to have been a copy-cat incident, planned to resemble six others in the suburbs of Paris in recent days.

On 27 October last year, a suspected police chase of three teenagers in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois ended with two of them dying in an electricity substation. The six weeks of rioting that ensued over France - with the exception of Marseilles - highlighted the often hopeless prospects of youths in French suburbs populated by second and third generation immigrants.

But as the weeks went by last year, it became clear that burning vehicles had become a sport for many rioters, who took pleasure in filming them on their mobile phones and placing the pictures on weblogs. Last year, a handicapped woman was badly burnt in a Paris suburb when she failed to escape a burning bus fast enough.

In an attempt to prevent the Marseilles attack from playing into the hands of the hardline Mr Sarkozy - who remains the likely presidential candidate of the centre-right government - the Socialists launched a sharp attack on him.

The Socialist first secretary François Hollande, who is married to the party's probable candidate, Ségoléne Royal, called Mr Sarkozy a "part-time minister" who has neglected France's troubled suburbs and concentrated instead on presidential campaigning.

Doctors at the Assistance Publique in Marseilles said Ms Galledou's condition had "neither improved nor deteriorated" last night.

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