Hunt for Metro bombers stalled

Yesterday the Paris police said 3,972 people and 1,193 vehicles were stopped and checked in the previous 24 hours in connection with the bombing of the Saint-Michel underground station. This might have caused excitement were it not that similar announcements have been made every morning since 26 July, the day after the blast that killed seven and injured more than 80, and the police seem no nearer to finding the culprits.

The tally of stops and searches has become little more than a ritual. The report includes details of how many of those stopped were taken to a police station, how many were foreigners, and how many of these had papers that were not in order (most of them) and dispatched to the relevant office of the security service.

Upwards of 80,000 people must have been checked in the Paris region; across France, the number must approach a million. Despite the operation, the investigation seems to have made little headway.

The only publicised glimmer of progress was the reported recognition by Algerian security services of one of the three Identikit pictures constructed by French police. Three admissions of responsibility, two by the Algerian Armed Islamic Group,have not been verified, though the assumption is that Algerian terrorists were responsible.

A Tunisian held in Paris 10 days ago and questioned was released almost at once. French police went to Italy to question a Moroccan held at Trieste with false French papers, but have played down suggestions he might have been involved in the bombing. Like the Tunisian, he was said to have had a video giving details of how to make bombs but this was not in itself evidence of a connection.

In Paris, a problem is said to have arisen over lack of communication between the judge leading the investigation, Jean-Francois Ricard, and investigators from the anti-terrorist squad. The squad, set up by Jacques Chirac in 1986, was downgraded by subsequent Socialist governments, which regarded some of its methods as questionable. Resulting low morale is given as one reason why investigators were slow to authorise removal of material from the train, which has made identification of the explosive used almost impossible.

Anti-terrorist officers have publicly questioned the independence of Mr Ricard, after he was invited to attend meetings of the government's emergency anti-terrorist committee and received separately by Jacques Toubon, the Justice Minister.

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