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French Police Investigate Ricin Plot - 2003-03-21

France's interior minister says traces of the poison ricin, discovered earlier in the week at a Paris train station, are too minute to have been deadly. French officials have not ruled out links between the discovery and an alleged Chechen terrorist network.

Speaking on French radio Friday, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy said the ricin might be linked to arrests last December of an alleged Chechen rebel group. But he said there is no proof at this time.

Two more people who are accused of having links with the Chechen rebels were arrested this week. They are suspected of supplying fighters to rebels in Chechnya who are fighting Russian troops. During the December arrests outside Paris, police also found chemical formulas for explosives and other suspicious material. French authorities believe the group planned to strike Russian targets in Paris and elsewhere.

The ricin was found Monday, in two vials stashed in a left luggage department at the Lyon train station in Paris. In a short statement issued late Thursday, the interior ministry said police found a case containing a total of four vials: two containing powder, along with a bottle of liquid.

Mr. Sarkozy said the two liquid vials also contained ethanol and acetone, ingredients that could be mixed to make ricin. That recipe, he said, had been mentioned in papers linked to the al-Qaida terrorist network. Ricin, a vegetable-based poison, can lead to death within hours if inhaled.

It was not immediately clear what the other two vials of powder contained, or the bottle of liquid also found at the station. An interior ministry official contacted by VOA Friday provided no further information. But the ministry says more laboratory investigations are under way, and a criminal investigation has been opened.

The French news agency AFP says the ricin discovery is the first publicly declared in France. In January, however, British authorities arrested several North Africans after reportedly discovering ricin in a North London apartment. The discoveries sparked fears of possible biological attacks on European soil.

The French government has stepped up security with the beginning of a second Gulf war. New measures include extra protection of Jewish and Muslim institutions, schools, and of the country's water and food supplies and airports.

Mr. Sarkozy said there were no specific terrorist threats to date, but French authorities have arrested a total of 29 terrorist suspects since November.