Islamic terror link to French siege

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The Independent Online
French police were yesterday contemplating the possibility of a link between Islamic terrorism, cross-border drug trafficking and a series of ultra- violent bank robberies, following last Friday's fatal shoot-out in the northern city of Roubaix.

A total of five men, presumed gang members, were killed and a sixth - named as Omar Zemiri - is in Belgian police custody after fleeing across the border. Two French policemen were seriously injured.

The Islamic aspect came to the fore after police and judicial sources disclosed yesterday that fundamentalist magazines, some of them banned in France and connected with the Algerian terrorist grouping, FIS, had been found at the house raided by police on Friday, along with a large quantity of firearms. More magazines, weapons and grenades, were found in a car belonging to two of the gang members and stopped by Belgian police after the Roubaix raid.

Four of the five dead were of north African origin; the fifth, Christophe Coze, was French, but had converted to Islam.

The Islamic link, which is matter of great sensitivity after last summer's bombing campaign in Paris, had initially been discounted by the French interior minister, Jean-Louis Debre, who described the gang as "ordinary racketeers". There was no question, he said, "either of terrorism, or Islamic fundamentalism". Subsequently, however, he was more circumspect, telling reporters: "It is not impossible that some areas of gangsterism may be associated with some areas of Islam."

Last week's events began with a small explosion in a stolen car parked outside police headquarters in Lille. Police said that several gas canisters had been placed inside the car and had been connected to a crude remote- control device. They were reluctant, however, to talk of a car bomb or to moot an Islamic connection.

Although some drew a connection with the imminent arrival of President Chirac and foreign dignitaries in Lille for the Group of Seven summit meeting on employment that began yesterday, speculation centred on the possibility of someone with a grudge against the police, possibly on the fringe of organised crime.

The next morning, however, it became evident that police had taken the "car bomb" very seriously indeed. Overnight they had staked out a house in the largely north African quarter of Roubaix, long regarded as a centre of the drugs trade and a "no-go area" for police. At dawn, they attempted to raid the house; there was an extensive shoot-out which resulted in four occupants dead and the house engulfed in flames.

Two men escaped by car, threw off the pursuing police and crossed into Belgium. Stopped by the Belgian police, one of the men was shot dead; the other ran into a nearby house and held two women hostage until forced out by police. Apparently the only survivor of the immediate gang, he is being held in Belgian custody.

The initial theory was that at least one of the men hiding out in the Roubaix house was connected with a series of unsolved robberies,in the area,. distinguished by the ruthlessness of the gang and the sophistication of their weapons.

The upsurge in violent, often drugs-related, crime in north-eastern France and the relative ease with which criminals could cross the Belgian border was one reason why France refused last year to implement the Schengen treaty on lifting border controls.

There were, however, unusual aspects to the events of last Thursday and Friday which raised suspicions that something more than either money or drugs was involved. The crudeness of the "car bomb" and its placing suggested either extreme amateurishness or a symbolic gesture, possibly both.

Police also expressed amazement that the four occupants of the Roubaix house had apparently preferred to die in the flames rather than surrender.

The disclosure over the weekend that one of the dead men. was a French convert to Islam has really set the alarm bells ringing, and the authorities - who were hoping that last year's fundamentalist violence had ended - will now be back on full anti-terrorist alert.