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Mysterious Group Suspends Bomb Threats on French Rail Lines - 2004-03-25

A mysterious group that has threatened to bomb French rail lines says it is suspending its operations. But a statement by the group warned it may attack in the future. Meanwhile, another group has begun making threats in France.

Two groups that were completely unknown just a few months ago have threatened to launch terrorist attacks in France in recent weeks.

Two bombs have been found on French rail lines, including one found Wednesday on a piece of track between Paris and Basel, Switzerland. Now, French officials have received another mysterious message from one of the groups, which calls itself AZF, claiming it has suspended its bomb-planting campaign on railroad tracks.

The letter was addressed to French President Jacques Chirac. French Interior Ministry officials, who made copies available to reporters, say it arrived early Thursday.

The AZF letter said it there are no more bombs on the French rails, it has suspended its campaign to mine the rail lines with explosives, but only while it shores up its technological and other expertise.

The letter suggests AZF is a small group with no obvious religious ideology - a claim government officials appear to believe. The letter said the group's objective is to strike against what it calls the corrupt spirit of society today.

AZF has already demanded the French government pay it almost $5 million. In its latest letter, it warns the government must pay future ransom demands without any trouble. Otherwise it threatens to launch strikes that would "surpass" those in Spain earlier this month.

Terrorism specialist Jean-Francois Daguzan at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris says the AZF threats put the French government in an extremely difficult position. He says groups trying to extort money usually target wealthy individuals and corporations, which can pay, but it is more difficult for a government.

"And often the people in supermarkets and general stores prefer to pay, in order [for them] to be quiet. In the case of AZF, it is very difficult for the government [which is in] a very contradictory position," said Mr. Daguzan. "One, to resist blackmail. On the other hand, to capture the terrorists."

French officials claim they have not given in to the AZF extortion demands. But complicating their situation are threats by another shadowy group - this one claiming Islamist credentials. The group has sent a threatening letter to French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, and reportedly also issued threats to French embassies overseas.

Mr. Daguzan says more threats create further confusion for the French government, which is still trying to figure out who planted the bomb found Wednesday.

"Is that bomb an AZF one, or is it another group trying to increase the panic for the population? It is extremely difficult to find a comprehensive way [out of] this messy situation," he said.

Mr. Daguzan believes it is quite possible the government will continue receiving threats.

He notes that there are thousands of kilometers of railway lines in France, and many different ways to send messages to French authorities. For the moment, he says, the government is doing what it can - keeping communication lines open with AZF, trying to calm the French population, increasing security, and trying to figure out which of the groups issuing threats are legitimate, and which are not.