French terror alert over rail bomb threat

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Every mile of railway track in France is being searched after a terrorist group threatened to blow up sections of the rail network unless they were paid $5m (£2.7m).

Every mile of railway track in France is being searched after a terrorist group threatened to blow up sections of the rail network unless they were paid $5m (£2.7m).

Police and politicians said they were taking the threats of the self-styled "AZF" group "completely seriously". Authorities ruled out any Islamist links but suggested that the group might be connected to the French far right.

A home-made time bomb, planted by the group on a busy railway line north of Limoges, was removed and detonated two weeks ago.

Police and rail workers were on maximum alert to try to locate the terrorists and 10 further time bombs which they claim to have hidden around the 20,000-mile national rail network. More than 10,000 rail workers have been ordered to inspect every mile of track in France by this morning. All trains are operating normally.

Police tried to drop the ransom - four million in dollars and one million in euros - from a helicopter at a pre-arranged location near Montargis in central France on Monday night. The police helicopter failed to find the pre-arranged marker - a blue tarpaulin - in the dark and the attempt failed. The group had originally asked to collect the money by helicopter from the top of the 40-storey Montparnasse tower in Paris.

The AZF group takes its name from a chemicals factory which exploded in Toulouse on 21 September 2001. The explosion was an accident but France's far right believes the blast was caused by a bomb planted by Islamist terrorists.

The authorities have ruled out the possibility that the AZF group has Islamist or Chechen connections. However, some of the words used in six letters sent by the group to President Jacques Chirac and the Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, imply far-right sympathies.

The first letter, sent on 14 December, described AZF as a "pressure group of terrorist character formed in a secular fraternity". It protested about a "wrecked economy", selfish politicians, a tame media, and a "mind-shrinking" education system. The time had come, the letter said, to rebuild France's "socio-economic systems to serve the needs of individuals".

The authorities said the existence of the terrorist group was covered up to protect ransom negotiations. As the story began to leak to the press this week, the interior ministry pleaded to national and international media to remain silent in the interests of national security.

Nevertheless, one newspaper, the Toulouse-based Dépêche du Midi, published the story yesterday. M. Sarkozy called the newspaper "irresponsible". Its editor, Jean-Christophe Giesbert, said: "Newspapers should not take orders from the interior ministry." The first ransom demands were made in a letter on 13 February. In subsequent letters, the blackmailers promised to reveal the location of the bombs if they were paid a ransom. In one letter, the French government was ordered to prove its willingness to co- operate by placing a small advertisement in the newspaper Libération. The advertisement was to read: "My big wolf, don't let's take unnecessary risks. Sooner is better. Give me your instructions. Suzy."

When the government obliged on 19 February, the AZF group sent another letter revealing the location of a bomb, buried in the ballast of the track of the main Toulouse-Paris railway line, 20 miles north of Limoges.

The bomb was made using a plastic food container, filled with nitrate and heating oil, linked to a sophisticated timing device.