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Bomb Explodes in Paris Station; Kills 4, Injures 60

By William Drozdiak
The Washington Post
PARIS

A powerful explosion ripped through a crowded commuter train at a busy underground station near Notre Dame Cathedral Tuesday, killing at least four people and injuring about 60 others what Prime Minister Alain Jupp described as a terrorist bomb attack.

The blast triggered scenes of chaos and panic during evening rush hour at the St. Michel subway and suburban rail station, a Left Bank crossroads for tourists and students at the nearby University of Paris. A neighborhood cafe was transformed into a makeshift field hospital as medics performed emergency amputations on several victims.

Fire engines and ambulances raced to the blast site next to the Seine River, and the cathedral esplanade was turned into a landing zone for helicopters evacuating the wounded. "It's carnage down there," said a fireman who emerged from the explosion site as he and more than 300 other rescue workers scrambled to extinguish the fire, muffle the fumes and pull the injured from the damaged rail cars.

"All of the windows of the train were blown out by the explosion. It was a scene of real horror," a witness said on French television.

"I was shocked by what I saw there," a shaken Jupp told reporters after visiting the scene and speaking with some of the victims. "There was a very strong explosive device placed down there with the intention to kill." President Jacques Chirac also visited the site and spoke with victims but left without making any public comment.

Within minutes of the blast, Interior Minister Jean-Louis Debre ordered heightened security in the city, at its two major airports and at other possible terrorist targets throughout the country, including border crossings and transportation facilities.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the bombing, but speculation in political circles here focused on Algerian Islamic extremists, a possible connection to France's military role in Bosnia or its decision to resume nuclear weapons testing.

If the blast is confirmed as the work of terrorists, it would be the bloodiest such attack here since 1986. In that year, pro-Iranian Lebanese extremists killed 13 people and wounded 100 others in a wave of bombings at department stores, restaurants and other public sites to protest French arms sales to Iraq and the arrest here of a suspected Iranian assassin.

Chirac, who was then prime minister of a conservative government under Socialist President Francois Mitterrand, had been the architect of an aggressive French arms-export program to Iraq during the 1970s, when he headed the first government of Mitterrand's predecessor, conservative Valery Giscard D'Estaing.

Anti-terrorism investigators were sifting through the wreckage of the train Tuesday night, looking for evidence that would help identify the attackers. A police spokesman said an initial inspection indicated that about six to nine pounds of explosives were detonated under a seat of the sixth car in the train, which was bound for the southern suburb of St.-Remy-les-Chevreuse. He said the timing of the explosion - at 5:30 p.m., the peak of rush hour - suggested the attackers sought to cause the maximum number of casualties.

In his first two months as president, Chirac has made several controversial foreign policy decisions that have provoked criticism abroad. He has ordered French U.N. troops in Bosnia to retaliate against any attacks by Bosnian Serb forces, even if that risks provoking further Serb attacks. He also has ordered a resumption of nuclear tests at the Mururoa atoll in French Polynesia, outraging Asian and Pacific nations and prompting protest demonstrations by environmental groups around the world.

In Algeria, a former French colony, Islamic extremists are waging a three-year-old guerrilla war against the army-backed secular government and have threatened to carry the battle to France, which they accuse of siding with the Algerian government. Last December, Algerian militants hijacked a crowded French airliner with the apparent intention of blowing it up in the skies over Paris, but French commandos stormed the plane in Marseille, killed the hijackers and freed the passengers.

There were also suggestions that the bombing may have been carried out by allies of Illich Ramirez Sanchez, also known as "Carlos the Jackal," the infamous Venezuelan-born terrorist who planned and led hijackings and bombings throughout the Middle East. Carlos was arrested in Sudan last year and extradited to Paris, where he is awaiting trial for the murders of two French policemen.