/ 28 November 2007

Sarkozy vows to punish gun-toting rioters

French President Nicolas Sarkozy vowed on Wednesday that rioters who shot at police during two days of Paris suburban unrest would be severely punished, as police struggled to contain the violence.

Back from a state visit to China, Sarkozy visited a police chief seriously injured in the country’s worst troubles since nationwide riots in restive suburbs in 2005, before heading into emergency talks with his ministers.

“Opening fire at officials is completely unacceptable,” Sarkozy warned, accusing the rioters of “attempted murder” and promising that “those who take it into their hands to shoot at officials will find themselves in court”.

At least 120 police have been injured since violence broke out on Sunday in the north Paris suburb of Villiers-le-Bel, touched off after two youths were killed in a motorbike collision with a police car.

About 1 000 riot police clamped down on Tuesday night on Villiers where they largely managed to prevent a third night of riots.

Dozens of cars and several buildings were still torched, mainly in towns around Villiers, the regional authorities said.

Youths threw petrol bombs at police in Les Mureaux, north-west of Paris, where eight minors were detained for trying to set fire to a bus. In Vitry-sur-Seine south of the capital, arsonists threw a flaming chair through the window of a primary school.

The regional prefect said there were “half as many” arson attacks as on Monday night, when 63 cars and five buildings went up in flames. He said “a few police officers” were injured.

In the southern city of Toulouse, about 20 cars were set on fire and a fire was started in a library.

Police unions say the scale and intensity of the violence unleashed since Sunday is worse than the nationwide riots of 2005 — also sparked by the deaths of two youths.

For two nights this week, youths have hurled petrol bombs and bricks at police, torching cars and buildings. Hunting rifles have also been used against police — dramatically upping the stakes in the face-off.

Prime Minister Francois Fillon, who spent the evening in Villiers, said the situation was “much calmer than the two previous nights”.

“But we can all feel that it remains fragile and it requires a strong deterrent force on the ground to stop what happened last night [Monday] from recurring.”

Many Villiers residents voiced anger at the intense police deployment cordoning off their neighbourhood.

“Oi, you aliens up there!” yelled one at the surveillance helicopters circling overhead. “It’s like being at war … they’re just out to provoke young people.”

But Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie told Europe 1 radio the police clampdown would be “maintained as long as necessary”, suggesting local gang leaders were orchestrating the violence. She vowed “zero tolerance”.

“When you fire at close range on police officers, it is obvious you intend to injure, if not worse,” she said.

“This is intolerable, whatever the reasons — which are clearly just excuses for some people to settle scores or cover up their criminal activities.”

Many locals accuse the police of causing the fatal accident and then fleeing the scene without helping the victims, fuelling anger in the suburbs.

Sarkozy met on Wednesday morning with relatives of the victims at the Elysee Palace and promised a full investigation into the deaths, according to a lawyer for the families.

The president “shares our concern for full light to be shed in the affair”, said Jean-Pierre Mignard.

An initial investigation has confirmed the police version of Sunday’s deaths, according to which the two teenagers — aged 15 and 16, neither wearing a crash helmet — were riding a motorbike that hit the police car.

Police and politicians say the French suburbs remain a “tinderbox” after the 2005 riots, which exposed France’s failure to integrate its large black and Arab population. — AFP