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Thursday, January 5, 2006 - Page updated at 10:47 AM

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Latest youth violence unnerves France

Los Angeles Times

PARIS — France confronted a new incident of violence Wednesday, a rampage that terrorized passengers as their train rolled east along the Riviera on New Year's Day.

The ordeal became front-page news Wednesday in the nation still on edge from riots in immigrant-dominated urban areas in November. Authorities were criticized for leaving about 600 passengers at the mercy of young people who robbed and sexually assaulted victims for at least 25 minutes as the train traveled from Nice to Marseilles.

The young people were among about 100 police had rounded up earlier after incidents of vandalism in Nice and put on the train to send them home to communities near Marseilles and Avignon.

Passengers tried to barricade themselves in compartments as assailants trashed the train and threatened to kill victims who used cellphones to call for help, authorities said. After police boarded the train in Les Arcs-Draguignan station, shaken passengers took refuge in a cafe, a waitress said Wednesday.

"They had tears in their eyes," said Linda Gasmi in statements reported by French media. "They said women were molested. They mentioned sexual aggression."

Police identified four victims and arrested six suspects for robbery, making death threats and sexual molestation. Witness accounts suggested more assailants and victims were involved but could not be identified.

Two suspects are 19-year-old Moroccan immigrants living in Avignon. Four others are juveniles, who in accord with French law, were not identified.

Police said the national railroad company, SNCF, had assigned a four-man private security team to watch the suspects when the train left Nice. But the guards got off a few stops later.

Many of the young people, all male, were drunk and belligerent when police herded them onto the train in Nice about 6 a.m. Sunday, witnesses said.

Some had been detained and released the previous night for allegedly vandalizing a train arriving from Marseilles for the New Year's Eve celebrations, authorities said. Groups of young people from tough neighborhoods with large North African immigrant populations were drawn to Nice by low-cost holiday fares.

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The high-level, if slow, response by senior officials reflected lingering worries about crime, youth gangs and potential new strife in immigrant neighborhoods.

President Jacques Chirac expressed indignation Wednesday. Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy promised to create a national railroad police, expanding an existing force that has cut transport crime in the Paris area. Security aboard national trains is handled by the private security force.

"I have asked for a very precise investigation into what happened and who failed in their responsibility," Sarkozy said on TV Wednesday night. "It's not a republic and not a democratic society if you are scared to take the bus, the subway or the train."

The opposition Socialist Party accused the government of downplaying the unrest. Jack Lang, a Socialist leader, said the attack on the train passengers "shows the contrast between the official propaganda intended to lull the French to sleep and the sad reality of worsening insecurity nationwide."

Troubles continued even after authorities made arrests and permitted the train to leave Les Arcs-Draguignan about 9 a.m. Sunday with police aboard, authorities said. Police arrested three more suspects for possession of drugs and weapons.

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