Second bomb found on French rail lines

Shadowy person or group wants millions in ransom


PARIS - A bomb was discovered on a rail line in northeastern France yesterday, the second explosive device found since an obscure militant entity began threatening in December to attack France's railroads unless it was paid millions of dollars.

The bomb, which was neutralized by a French bomb squad, was half buried between the tracks near the town of Montieramey on the rail line linking Paris with the Swiss city of Basel, France's Interior Ministry said.

French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, on a campaign visit near where the bomb was found, urged the public to remain calm, saying it was not yet clear what danger the device posed.

The discovery comes amid growing threats from various groups against France, causing the country to increase security here and abroad. Anxiety over the safety of rail travel in Europe is already high because of the train bombings in Madrid this month that killed 190 people. President Jacques Chirac was in Madrid yesterday to attend a memorial Mass for the victims of the March 11 train bombings.

The Interior Ministry said that an employee with the state rail company, SNCF, found the bomb around noon about 120 miles southeast of Paris, between the Troyes and Vendeuvre stations. The bomb contained nitrate fuel in a plastic container with seven detonators attached to a timing device. The statement said one wire on the device was disconnected.

The ministry called an emergency meeting of police, intelligence and other security officials late yesterday.

AZF began threatening to attack the railways in mid-December with a series of letters to Chirac and Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy. The letters demanded more than $5 million to prevent an attack. The group's initials are those of a chemical factory that exploded in southwestern France in 2001. Investigators believe that blast, which killed 30 people, was accidental.

To back up its claim, AZF directed authorities last month to a bomb hidden on the tracks that also contained nitrate fuel in a plastic container attached to detonators.

The Interior Ministry's statement, however, said the circumstances of the latest bomb's discovery "did not correspond to what was in the letters signed by AZF." It did not elaborate, and Interior Ministry officials declined to comment. It was unclear whether authorities had received a tip about the bomb found yesterday.

More than 10,000 French railway workers inspected the entire 20,000 miles of the country's railroad network on foot after the threats last month. The state rail system began an identical inspection yesterday.

Last month, AZF demanded that a helicopter drop more than $5 million in ransom money in a field near the town of Montargis, 65 miles south of Paris. But visibility was poor and the agents were unable to locate the spot.

Authorities do not believe the AZF threat is related to other threats against the country from Islamic extremists. This month, French officials said a previously unknown Islamic group calling itself Servants of Allah the Powerful and Wise had threatened French interests in France and abroad in a letter addressed to the prime minister. Similar letters have been received by French embassies in several African and Muslim countries.

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