French rail on high alert as bomb is found

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The Independent Online

A crude explosive device was found buried under the track of a railway line 90 miles east of Paris yesterday, 12 days after a mysterious terrorist group renewed its threat to attack the French rail network.

A crude explosive device was found buried under the track of a railway line 90 miles east of Paris yesterday, 12 days after a mysterious terrorist group renewed its threat to attack the French rail network.

The device bore a superficial resemblance to a bomb planted by the "AZF" terrorist-blackmail group last month, but was less powerful and less elaborate. Anti-terrorist investigators and the rail network were placed on full alert last night but the possibility of a hoax, or a copycat action, had not been excluded.

In the light of the Madrid train bombings, the new scare in France caused jitters among homeward bound commuters and even, briefly, caused a drop in the value of the dollar.

The French prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, who was, by coincidence, making an election campaign visit to the region where the bomb was found, called on France to "keep calm".

The bomb, made from nitrate heating fuel, a small plastic box, fireworks detonators and a kitchen timer, was found by a railwayman half hidden in the ballast under a track at Monteramey, near Troyes, on the line from Paris to Basle. It was removed by bomb disposal experts.

Over the past three months, a group called AZF - thought to consist of no more than two people - has threatened to detonate bombs under trains unless the French state pays a ransom, originally set at €5m (£3.3m).

The French government has communicated with the blackmailers by telephone, and through coded newspaper small ads. It has also made two unsuccessful attempts to pay the ransom. In the last message, sent to President Jacques Chirac 12 days ago, AZF threatened to detonate bombs within a week unless a larger sum was handed over.

Officials said that the bomb found yesterday used a plastic container like the one planted by AZF near Limoges on 21 February. It also used nitrate heating fuel like the first bomb, whose precise location was revealed in a message from AZF to encourage authorities to take them seriously.

Otherwise, however, the interior ministry said that the device found yesterday was much less elaborate and professional. "It does not fit the description given in the messages from AZF," the ministry said in a statement.

Nonetheless, the French rail network, SNCF, last night ordered thousands of its employees to walk every yard of its 20,000-mile system, for the second time in three weeks.

The railwaymen were looking for suspicious objects or for any sign that the ballast - the crushed stones which support the track - had been tampered with.

AZF - which takes its name from a chemicals factory in Toulouse which exploded accidentally soon after the 11 September terrorist attacks in the United States - has been sending messages or making telephone calls to the French government since mid-December.

The French authorities kept the threats secret until the first week of this month when they leaked to the press.

In series of newspaper small ads, in which the blackmailers called themselves "gros loup" (big wolf) and ordered the French government to adopt the name "Suzie", AZF warned that they had planted 10 bombs at different points around the SNCF network. Once armed by remote control, the blackmailers said, the bombs would explode when a train passed over them.

The bomb discovered on a viaduct near Limoges corresponded with that description and was found - in a controlled explosion - to be capable of smashing a rail and sending the pieces 20 feet into the air. The device found yesterday was relatively crude, officials said, and could not have been triggered by remote control.

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