Jailbreak by fax is new Corsican blow for France

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They were not accused of white-collar crime but they achieved the world's first white-collar jailbreak ­ by fax.

Three of the most notorious gangsters in Corsica, the alleged leaders of a gang of protection racketeers called La Brise de Mer (The Sea Breeze), were freed after a fax arrived from a judge ordering their immediate release.

The fax was a forgery, but no one in the prison had bothered to check. The ruse went undiscovered for six days, until last Tuesday, by when the trio had disappeared without trace.

Strange things happen in Corsica. The fax jailbreak, from the new Borgo prison near Bastia, is a deep embarrassment to the French authorities ­ yet another ­ as they prepare to give the island limited autonomy. Other embarrassments are on the way.

Three years after the murder of the island's Prefect (senior representative of national government), his presumed assassin, Yvan Colonna, is still on the run. The motive for the killing of Claude Erignac, shot as he walked to the opera in Ajaccio in February 1998, remains obscure. In a book soon to be published, a leading figure in the much-splintered Corsican nationalist movement, François Santoni, claims that Mr Erignac was the victim of a plot involving Corsican gangster-nationalists and shady political-business interests on the mainland who aimed to use Corsica for a big money-laundering operation.

He also alleges that Mr Erignac's successor, Bernard Bonnet, was given a £1m slush fund by the French Prime Minister's office to lead his own, secret, investigation into the murder. Mr Bonnet, sent to clean up the island, decided to play the lawless elements in Corsica at their own game.

He and six other people, including two senior gendarmes, will go on trial in November for fire-bombing two illegally built beach restaurants. Mr Bonnet, it is alleged, became obsessed with the restaurants as symbols of the impunity with which some Corsicans defy the law and the French state. He is accused of ordering an élite gendarmerie unit to burn the places in the dead of night and scatter papers linking the attacks to one of the Corsican independence movements. The trial may prove awkward for the Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin. Mr Bonnet claims he had authorisation for everything he did from officials in the Prime Minister's office.

It was the embarrassments of the Erignac and Bonnet affairs that persuaded Mr Jospin that it was time to cut through the knot of political-criminal interests in Corsica and offer the island a greater role in the running of its own affairs. A law giving the Corsican assembly limited powers to pass laws and raise money was approved on its first reading by the National Assembly last month. The French government has, meanwhile, set up an investigation to discover whether the fax jailbreak was the result of a simple chain of blunders or something more organised (and more Corsican).

The three fugitives, Pierre-Marie Santucci, Francis Mariani and Maurice Costa, all in their fifties, were arrested a year ago on suspicion of leading the Brise de Mer syndicate, one of the island's principal criminal organisations, believed to be obscurely linked to nationalist political activities.

On 31 May, Borgo prison received a fax, with an official court heading, signed by a judge in Ajaccio, ordering their immediate release. The fax actually came from the mainland; it misspelled the judge's name; it was signed over a manifestly forged seal. Regulations also demand a letter of release for each detainee, not one for all three. None the less, the trio was released that afternoon.