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No word from French bomb group

About 10,000 rail workers searched for devices across the network.
About 10,000 rail workers searched for devices across the network.

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France tightens rail security in light of bomb threats from a terrorist group. CNN's Gavin Morris reports. (March 4)
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PARIS, France (Reuters) -- The French government sought Friday to renew contact with a shadowy group that is demanding cash to prevent it carrying out a threat to start setting off bombs in the next two weeks.

The previously unknown group, AZF, says it has planted 10 bombs on France's rail network and that it will explode them one by one if it does not receive about $5 million.

It has been out of contact with the government since its demands became public this week, despite a plea by the Interior Ministry for the media not to reveal any details.

Police sources said the group had vowed last month to start exploding bombs if the government failed to keep secret the contacts which started last December.

"Perhaps contact will be renewed. I hope so, but today we have no more contact," Claude Gueant, an aide to Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, told RTL radio.

A police source said: "The danger is now greater than ever."

The conservative government has vowed to bring the group to justice but has few clues to go on. It has tightened security on SNCF state railways and wants to avoid criticism before regional elections on March 21 and 28 which are a test of its popularity.

About 10,000 SNCF workers completed a search of the 32,000 km (20,000 miles) of track on Thursday but found no bombs.

The government has ruled out any involvement by radical Islamic groups. Its efforts to impose an embargo on news of the threats were foiled by a regional newspaper, La Depeche du Midi, which said it was its duty to inform passengers.

The group directed police to one bomb under tracks near Limoges.
The group directed police to one bomb under tracks near Limoges.

Other media then followed suit.

Contact with the group has mainly been through letters it has sent to the ministry and to President Jacques Chirac, some of which were published by Le Monde newspaper on Friday.

One, which Le Monde said was sent on February 20, contained a threat to start exploding the bombs if the government refused to keep its contacts with the group secret.

The letter said that "in retaliation for any deception or action (against us), the AZF will remain silent for 15 days" -- meaning it would sever contacts for that time. It said rail traffic would have to be interrupted "because of the probability of one or two explosions outside the network."

It was not clear whether this meant the group might explode bombs close to the railways as a warning or might try to blow up other, unspecified targets.

In another letter, which Le Monde said was dated February 13, the group threatened to explode two to four bombs each week from February 18 if it was not paid and suggested it might blow them up in what it referred to just as public places.

SNCF, which has about 2.5 million passengers each day, says people seem not to have changed their travel plans radically since the threats were made public.

The group names itself after the AZF chemical factory that exploded in 2001, killing 31 people, in an industrial accident. Police sources say at least one woman is involved because she telephoned the Interior Ministry on behalf of the group.

Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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