- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 19, 2008

VILLIERS-LE-BEL, France (AP) — More than 1,000 police officers, some wearing black hoods, raided housing projects outside Paris in a massive sweep yesterday, kicking open doors and detaining 33 persons in a search for rioters who led an outburst of violence last year, a prosecutor said.

Critics called the early morning operation, captured on television cameras, a “security spectacle” aimed at bolstering President Nicolas Sarkozy before municipal elections next month.

Mr. Sarkozy recently vowed to improve policing in the neglected neighborhoods, populated largely by families of immigrant backgrounds, that exploded into nationwide riots in 2005.

Riot police and other officers were mobilized for yesterday’s raids in Villiers-le-Bel and in the neighboring towns of Sarcelles, Gonesse and Arnouville as part of the investigation into a flare-up of violence there in November, according to police.

Marie-Therese de Givry, prosecutor of Pontoise, said 33 persons were arrested.

House-to-house searches followed the raids for several hours, the prosecutor told reporters in Pontoise, seat of the Val d’Oise region where the targeted suburbs are located.

Most of those detained, ages 19 to 31, had been known to police, mainly for previous violence, according to police. Delinquents and drug traffickers may be among those arrested. The prosecutor said one suspect had the equivalent of $10,855 in his jacket pocket.

In one raid, about 100 police officers surrounded a building in Villiers-le-Bel across from a library and preschool that had been burned down by rioters. At least two persons were arrested there.

Violence broke out Nov. 25 and 26 in Villiers-le-Bel after two teenage boys were killed in a motorcycle crash with a police car. Police and local officials said it was an accident, but many residents were unconvinced.

The flare-up fueled fears of broader unrest like the three weeks of riots across the nation’s neglected suburbs two years earlier, in November 2005.

Many of those rioters were Arab or black, French-born children or grandchildren of immigrants from France’s former colonies who were frustrated by entrenched discrimination and isolation.

Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie roundly denounced leaks that alerted journalists to the simultaneous raids in housing projects in four towns. The mayor of Villiers-le-Bel, Didier Vaillant, said it was “surprising” he learned of the operation after the press.

Countering the criticism, Labor Minister Xavier Bertrand said on LCI television that the operation simply shows “there is no zone of lawlessness in our republic.”

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