French youths fire on police

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PARIS (AP) – France’s national police chief Monday said overnight riots sent a “shock wave” across France, as youths injured three dozen officers and burned more than 1,400 vehicles in the worst night of violence since the unrest began.

Apparent copycat attacks spread to other European cities for the first time, with five cars torched outside Brussels’ main train station, police in the Belgian capital said.

Australia, Austria and Britain became the latest countries to advise their citizens to exercise care in France, joining the United States and Russia in warning tourists to stay away from violence-hit areas.

Clashes around France left 36 police injured, and vandals burned 1,408 vehicles overnight Sunday-Monday, setting a new high for overnight arson and violence since the rioting started Oct. 27, national police chief Michel Gaudin said.

The mayhem started as an outburst of anger in suburban Paris housing projects and has fanned out nationwide among disaffected youths, mostly of Muslim or African origin, to become France’s worst civil unrest in over a decade.

Attacks overnight were reported in 274 towns, and police made 395 arrests, Gaudin said.

“This spread, with a sort of shock wave spreading across the country, shows up in the number of towns affected,” Gaudin said, noting that the violence appeared to be sliding away from its flash point in the Parisian suburbs and worsening elsewhere.

It was the first time police were injured by weapons fire amid signs that rioters were deliberately seeking out clashes with police, officials said.

Among the injured police, 10 were injured by youths firing fine-grain birdshot in a late night clash in the southern Paris suburb of Grigny, national police spokesman Patrick Hamon said. Two were hospitalized but their lives were not in danger. One was wounded in the neck, the other in the legs.

The unrest began Oct. 27 in the low-income Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, after the deaths of two teenagers of Mauritanian and Tunisian origin. The youths were accidentally electrocuted as they hid from police in a power substation. They apparently thought they were being chased.

There have been 4,700 cars burned in France since the rioting began, and 1,200 suspects have been detained at least temporarily, Gaudin said.

The growing violence is forcing France to confront long-simmering anger in its suburbs, where many Africans and their French-born children live on society’s margins, struggling with high unemployment, racial discrimination and despair _ fertile terrain for crime of all sorts as well as for Muslim extremists offering frustrated youths a way out.

France, with some 5 million Muslims, has the largest Islamic population in Western Europe.

Meanwhile, the government faced growing criticism for its inability to stop the violence, despite massive police deployment and continued calls for calm.

President Jacques Chirac promised stern punishment for those behind the attacks, making his first public address Sunday since the riots started.

“The law must have the last word,” Chirac said after a security meeting with top ministers. France is determined “to be stronger than those who want to sow violence or fear, and they will be arrested, judged and punished.”

France’s biggest Muslim fundamentalist organization, the Union for Islamic Organizations of France, issued a fatwa, or religious decree. It forbade all those “who seek divine grace from taking part in any action that blindly strikes private or public property or can harm others.”

Arsonists burned two schools and a bus in the central city of Saint-Etienne and its suburbs, and two people were injured in the bus attack. Churches were set ablaze in northern Lens and southern Sete, he said. The extent of damage was not immediately clear.

In Colombes in suburban Paris, youths pelted rocks at a bus, sending a 13-month-old child to the hospital with a head injury, Hamon said, while a daycare center was burned in Saint-Maurice, another Paris suburb.

Much of the youths’ anger has focused on law-and-order Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who inflamed passions by referring to troublemakers as “scum.”

In Strasbourg, youths stole a car and rammed it into a housing project, setting the vehicle and the building on fire.

“We’ll stop when Sarkozy steps down,” said the defiant 17-year-old driver of the car, who gave his name only as Murat. Under arrest, he and several others awaited a ride to the police station as smoke poured from the windows of the housing project behind them.

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