Thursday, August 19, 2004

Frenchman held for vandalising Jewish graves and racist axe attack

LYON, France, Aug 16 (AFP) - A 24 year-old Frenchman alleged to have attacked a north African with an axe and desecrated a Jewish cemetery was placed under investigation here Monday for attempted murder and damaging religious property.

The Lyon state attorney said 24 year-old Michel Tronchon had been driven by hatred of Arabs.

The alleged attack on the north African took place on August 5 and a rampage through a Jewish cemetery damaging 60 gravestones occurred four days later.

Tronchon was remanded in custody on suspicion of attempted murder motivated by racist and xenophobic motives, and of destruction of private property in a religious place.

If found guilty he could face life imprisonment.

Earlier a prosecutor said the suspect had turned himself in to police in Paris on Saturday carrying an axe and was taken back to the eastern French city to face investigation.

French President Jacques Chirac condemned the August 9 desecration of the Jewish cemetery, in which swastikas, Celtic crosses and references to Adolf Hitler were daubed across gravestones and a Holocaust monument in black paint, and called for tough punishment for the culprit.

Police looking for a man who wielded an axe in the August 5 assault on a victim of north African origin said a witness account linked the suspect to that crime, too.

The accused, who quit his job at the start of August, appeared to be a solitary figure who had "a visceral hatred of Arabs" and who thought the cemetery desecration would prompt further actions by neo-Nazi groups, the prosecutor's office said.

A search of the man's home in Lyon had turned up another axe he had bought the day before the graffiti attack.

He also told investigators that he had sent a piece of a gravestone to a Paris newspaper in a quest for publicity for his act.

Officials said the suspect walked into a police station in Paris and confessed he was "Phineas" - a name that had been painted on some of the defaced graves. In the Bible, Phineas was a priest who killed a fellow Israelite and a Midianite (Arab) woman because the two were having relations.

A regional police chief, Jean-Christophe Ladarde, said the man had surrendered because he wanted media attention and because he was in Paris with no money.

France has taken steps to crack down severely on racist acts because of a wave of attacks on people of north African or Jewish background fuelled by Israeli-Palestinian tensions.

The number of racist and anti-Semitic acts committed in the country soared in the first half of 2004, according to interior ministry statistics, with 135 acts of physical violence against Jews and 95 against north African and other ethnic groups.

Some 650,000 Jews live in France along with around 5 million Muslims, out of an overall population of some 58 million.



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