Jewish anger at 'racist' murder by kidnap gang

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Police had said that the gang kidnapped Ilan Halimi, 23 ­ using a beautiful, young, blonde woman as bait ­ to extort money from his family. However, the victim's family and many other Parisian Jews are convinced the crime was, at least partially, racially motivated.

Last night the Justice Minister, Pascal Clement, confirmed that investigators had alleged "aggravated circumstances of anti-Semitism". He said that one suspect had indicated M. Halimi was selected "because he was Jewish and because a Jew was rich". He added: "That is an aggravating circumstance, it means that the resonance is no longer the same."

A Parisian member of parliament, Claude Goasguen, said yesterday the city could face "extremely serious intra-community violence" unless the authorities abandoned their "persistent silence on the real motives for this murder".

At the weekend, a mainly peaceful protest march by Parisian Jews was marred by a number of violent actions by radical young Jewish men. A black man was beaten up, allegedly for "smiling" at the protest. An Arab-run grocery was attacked. A motorist who was caught up in the march was assaulted and had to be rescued by demonstration marshals.

Tracts were handed out by Jewish radical groups which claimed that Ilan Halimi, a mobile telephone salesman, was a victim of "Islamo-fascism".

Fifteen people have been arrested in connection with M. Halimi's abduction and death. Three were placed under formal investigation at the weekend, including Audrey Lorleach, 24, who is accused of picking up the young man at his shop and leading him into a trap.

Seven other alleged members of the gang were formally accused of kidnapping, murder and lesser crimes after appearing before an investigating magistrate yesterday afternoon.

The alleged ring-leader of the kidnap gang, Youssouf "Mohammed" Fafana, 25, who called himself (in English) the "brain of the barbarians " is still on the run. Police have branded him as "the most wanted man in France".

M. Fafana is a convicted petty criminal of Côte d'Ivoirian origin. French investigators say that the gang has been involved in half a dozen other kidnappings and attempted kidnappings. Most of the other victims, or intended victims, were not Jewish. Officially, therefore, police insist that there is no reason to suspect that the torture and murder of M. Halimi were racially motivated.

The young man disappeared on 21 January after making a date to meet Mme Lorleach, whom he had met in his mobile telephone shop in Paris. His family said that they had received a series of ransom demands via e-mail, text message and telephone, demanding a ransom of ¤450,000 (£308,000), which they were unable to raise.

He was discovered last Monday, three weeks later, in the southern suburbs of Paris, naked, gagged and handcuffed. He died soon afterwards from multiple injuries and burns.

His family insists that he was the victim of an "anti-Semitic crime". During telephone calls demanding money, they said, gang members read out verses of the Koran. Even if money were the original motive for the abduction, they said, they believe that M. Halimi was tortured and murdered because he was Jewish.

The fugitive, M. Fofana, and several other gang members, lived in a troubled housing estate at Bagneux, west of Paris. Although the self-proclaimed " brain of the barbarians" had served time in prison for petty crimes, neighbours said that they were astonished to hear that he was suspected of kidnap, torture and murder.

A local youth said: "This is a gang made up of jetsam and flotsam ­ young people without an idea in their head, who probably didn't realise the seriousness of what they were doing." Another neighbour described him as "an ordinary young man ­ jeans, trainers, hello, goodbye, that's all."

Some Jewish community leaders accuse the police of deliberately playing down the racial aspects of the crime to avoid inflaming religious and intra-community tensions.

The torture and murder of M. Halimi has commanded much attention in the Israeli media. One Israeli radio station said the murder proved that it was "no longer safe" for Jewish people to live in Paris. In fact, there was a steep fall in the number of anti-Semitic attacks in France last year after a peak in 2004.

The representative council of Jewish institutions in France, CRIF, has called for calm but has also appealed to investigators to reveal all they know on the "motives of the assassins".