France steps up suburb security after fresh unrest

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VILLIERS-LE-BEL, France, Nov 27 (Reuters) Police will step up security in north Paris suburbs to prevent a third night of unrest, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said today, promising a firm line against rioters who attack police.

Around 80 police were injured overnight as rioters pelted police with stones, petrol bombs and firecrackers during several hours of skirmishes in Villiers and nearby areas. Police replied with tear gas and rubber bullets and made five arrests.

''We're going to do everything so that this evening there is a maximum security presence in Villiers-le-Bel and the neighbouring areas, because the residents should not have to relive another night of violence,'' Fillon told parliament.

The clashes were ''unacceptable, intolerable, incomprehensible'' and could not be justified, he said.

''Those who fire on the police and who beat a police officer nearly to death, are criminals and must be treated like criminals,'' said Fillon.

Five police officers were seriously hurt overnight, including one hit by a projectile apparently fired from a hunting rifle.

President Nicolas Sarkozy will meet Fillon and his interior and justice ministers to discuss the crisis on his return from China tomorrow, his spokesman said in a statement. He will first visit injured police officers in hospital.

The violence started on Sunday after two youths died in a collision with police, and images of burnt out cars, a school and a library revived images of suburban riots two years ago.

Those disturbances were the worst civil unrest in France for 40 years and many blamed the harsh rhetoric of Sarkozy, who was interior minister at the time, for stoking the violence.

This time, Sarkozy has called for calm and the lower key government response suggested it wants to avoid exacerbating tensions in France's deprived, ethnically diverse suburbs.

''WORSE THAN 2005'' The latest disturbances distracted from Sarkozy's success in clinching billions of euros of contracts for French firms on his China trip, and provided a new headache following recent transport strikes and student protests over his reforms.

Ignoring appeals for calm from the crash victims' families, rioters damaged dozens of shops, businesses and public buildings during running battles with police.

Authorities are still investigating the fatal crash that sparked the unrest. The local prosecutor said it was a traffic accident although some relatives have questioned police actions after the crash and how quickly help arrived.

Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said criminals were using youngsters to lure away police while they pillaged shops and denied a repeat of the 2005 riots was on the cards.

''For the moment what we are seeing is that things are very limited geographically,'' she told France 3 television. Two years ago, poor neighbourhoods throughout France were affected.

Patrice Ribeiro of the Synergie police union told RTL radio that the toll of 77 officers hurt was unusually high for a riot.

''From what our colleagues on the scene told us, the situation is a lot worse than in 2005. A line was passed last night with the appearance of firearms,'' he said.

REUTERS JT RK2301

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