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Europe: France Braces For Another Round Of Terrorist Attacks

Prague, 4 December 1996 (RFE/RL) - In the wake of last night's lethal bombing of a commuter-train car in central Paris, France braced itself today for another round of murderous terrorist attacks similar to a wave of bombings that rocked the country last year.

This morning, more than 1,000 police and soldiers -- many armed with sub-machine guns -- took up positions outside underground Metro and railroad stations, airports, large shopping centers, schools and other vulnerable sites throughout France. Controls at border crossings were stepped up and security tightened in big cities. In Paris, commuters and Metro riders heard an announcement every three minutes reminding them of yesterday's attack and calling on them to be vigilant.

It was all grimly reminiscent of the garrison-state atmosphere that prevailed in France during the last six months of 1995, when eight bombings killed eight people and injured 160 others. Last year's attacks were linked to the civil war in Algeria and blamed on supporters of the terrorist Armed Islamic Group (known as GIA in the French acronym), whose apparent motive was to protest France's support for Algiers' military-backed government. The hallmark of the GIA's attacks was the use of gas canister bombs packed with gunpowder and nails that maimed those who were not killed immediately.

Last night's bombing had all the earmarks of a GIA operation. It took place at the height of the rush-hour in a crowded commuter train -- on the same line and just two stations away from last July's first attack that killed eight. Police found the remains of a gas canister in the railroad car that was devastated. The explosion killed two passengers immediately, severely wounded eight others -- several of whom are not expected to survive -- injured another 20 and was said to have "impacted on" close to 50 more passengers. This morning, Interior Minister Jean-Louis Debre told a government cabinet meeting that the canister had indeed contained gunpowder and nails.

If the bombing was the work of the GIA, it was probably partially in response to the results of last week's referendum in Algeria that banned Islam-based political parties. It may also have been intended as a warning before a trial involving 17 alleged GIA supporters gets underway in France in 10 days.

Some analysts and officials believe that the effects of the bomb, deadly as they were, would have been far worse had it gone off five minutes later, as it was probably intended to do. In the event, the explosion took place in one of the rare outdoor stations, Port-Royal, of Paris' commuter network. Had it taken place in the next stop on the route, the underground Luxembourg station, estimations are that the impact would have been at last three-fold, killing perhaps dozens who escaped with minor injuries.

Within two hours of the blast, Prime Minister Alain Juppe visited the site and declared he was reactivating a counter-terrorist operation aimed at GIA supporters and other Islamic militants. President Jacques Chirac broke off a meeting with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl to appear on national television. He denounced the bombing as an act of "barbarism." Both conservative leaders are highly unpopular in austerity and unemployment-ridden France, with Juppe setting a new record low approval rate -- 21 percent -- for prime ministers in office.

But it is Interior Minister Debre, long under attack for "weakness" and other failings, who is likely to held responsible for the latest attack. He directed operations that rounded up some 360 GIA supporters and militants in France last year. Yet according to the daily "Liberation" today, the suspected Algerian leader of the 1995 bombing campaign slipped through police nets no less than three times. The paper said that authorities are convinced that a 39-year-old Algerian known as "Tarak" -- whose real name is Ali Touchant -- master-minded last year's attacks and may have been behind yesterday's bombing as well.

Analysts say that, even before yesterday's blast, Debre was to have been replaced in a planned cabinet reshuffle. Ironically, the explosion probably saved his political life for the time being, because any change in government now would be seen as caving in to terrorist pressure. And Chirac and Juppe are also expected to benefit politically, at least in the short run, from the feelings of national solidarity provoked by the bombing. So the real losers are the increasingly distraught French people, whose end-of-year holiday season has now certainly been ruined -- and whose lives are once again in danger.