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Youth Rampage on Train Leaves France Aghast

Officials are blamed for New Year's incident in which passengers were terrorized on Riviera.

January 05, 2006|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — France confronted a new incident of youth violence Wednesday, a rampage that terrorized passengers as their train rolled west along the Riviera on New Year's Day.

The ordeal became front-page news Wednesday in a nation still on edge from riots in November in immigrant-dominated urban areas. Authorities were criticized for leaving about 600 passengers at the mercy of youths who allegedly robbed, roughed up and sexually assaulted victims for at least 25 minutes as the 10-car regional train traveled from Nice toward Marseilles.

The youths were among about 100 suspected troublemakers whom police had rounded up in Nice and put on the train to send them home to communities around Marseilles and Avignon.

Passengers tried to barricade themselves in compartments as assailants trashed the train and threatened to kill victims who used cellphones to call for help, authorities said. After police boarded at Les Arcs-Draguignan station, shaken passengers took refuge in a cafe, a waitress told reporters Wednesday.

"They had tears in their eyes," said Linda Gasmi in statements reported by French media. "They said women were molested. They mentioned sexual aggression. They were really traumatized."

Police identified four victims and arrested six people on suspicion of robbery, making death threats and sexual molestation. Witness accounts suggested that more assailants and victims were involved, but could not be identified.

Two suspects are 19-year-old Moroccan immigrants living in Avignon. The four others are juveniles, who were not identified, in accordance with French law.

Police said the national railroad company, SNCF, had assigned a four-man private security team to watch the youths when the train left Nice. But the guards, who included a dog-handler, got off a few stops later, reporting that all was calm.

Many of the young men were already drunk and belligerent when police herded them onto the train about 6 a.m. Sunday, witnesses said.

Some of the youths had been detained and released the previous night for allegedly vandalizing a train arriving from Marseilles for New Year's Eve celebrations, authorities said. Groups of youths from tough neighborhoods with large North African immigrant populations were drawn to Nice, a beach city full of nightlife, by special low-cost holiday fares.

The high-level, if slow, response by senior officials reflected lingering worries about crime, gangs and potential new strife in immigrant neighborhoods.

President Jacques Chirac expressed indignation Wednesday. Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy promised to create a national railroad police, expanding an existing force that has cut transport crime in the Paris area. Security aboard national trains is handled by the private security force, which has limited powers.

"I have asked for a very precise investigation into what happened and who failed in their responsibility," Sarkozy said on the TF1 television network Wednesday night. "It's not a republic and not a democratic society if you are scared to take the bus, the subway or the train."

The opposition Socialist Party accused the government of downplaying unrest that took place around France on New Year's Eve, traditionally an occasion for urban violence.

Jack Lang, a Socialist leader, said the attack on the train passengers "shows the contrast between the official propaganda intended to lull the French to sleep and the sad reality of worsening insecurity nationwide."

Authorities acknowledged that the incident revealed confusion among railroad security, the national police and the gendarmerie, a paramilitary force based in rural areas.

Troubles on the train continued even after authorities made arrests and permitted the train to leave Les Arcs-Draguignan about 9 a.m. Sunday with a police contingent aboard, authorities said. As the train approached Marseilles, youths vandalized cars, pulled the emergency brake several times and fled onto the tracks, according to authorities and media reports.

Police arrested three more people on suspicion of possessing drugs and weapons, including a knife and two screwdrivers.

Sarkozy and police union officials questioned the decision of judges to release those who had been arrested on the train that arrived in Nice on New Year's Eve, then wreaked havoc on the return trip.

"The kids broke everything on the train coming in, so it was clear what they were up to. And the judges let them all go," said Patrice Ribeiro, a police union spokesman.

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