French minister vows crackdown

Grenoble - Rioters exchanged gunfire with police in the French Alpine city of Grenoble on Saturday, setting fire to shops and cars after police shot dead a man accused of robbing a casino.

Youths torched between 50 and 60 cars in the southeastern city nestled in the French Alps, as well as construction equipment and two shops, while police said they made five arrests.

Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux arrived at the scene later on Saturday, vowing to quickly restore order to the working class La Villeneuve neighbourhood.

The rioting started after a memorial service for 27-year-old Karim Boudouda, who had died 24 hours earlier in a shoot-out with police after allegedly holding up the Uriage-les-Bains casino near Grenoble.

Shortly before midnight, a group of around 30 youths armed with baseball bats and iron bars attacked a tram in Boudouda's La Villeneuve district and forced the passengers to get out.

Police intervened to protect the passengers, and the youths began torching vehicles and attacking police who responded with tear gas.

At around 00:30 GMT, a youth emerged at the front of the rioters and fired a shot at police, who returned fire four times, police spokesperson Brigette Jullien told AFP.

Nobody was injured in the riots, said police, who arrested two men aged 18 and 20 for setting fire to vehicles and three more for attempted looting of shops.

Lightning tour

By Saturday afternoon while the neighbourhood appeared calm, Hortefeux, with a horde of media in tow, made a lightning 15-minute tour of La Villeneuve and promised quick action by the authorities.

"When I say quick, I mean immediately, that's how we are going to re-establish public order and the authority of the State," he told an instant press briefing outside the police headquarters.

"I've asked the prefect to use all means to secure the neighbourhood... for now and for as much time as necessary for calm to return," he said, adding: "There is a simple and clear reality in this country: there's no future for hoodlums and delinquents because in the end the public authority always wins."

Some local residents listening to the interior minister, who also promised to crack down on drug and arms trafficking, were not totally reassured.

"I don't know what to think" of his visit, a florist in the neighbourhood told AFP.

"On the one hand it's reassuring, on the other it can only stir up the hatred of some people," he said, adding that he wanted to empty his florist shop in case there were more incidents.

"The minister's visit only risks aggravating the situation," said another resident who also asked not to be named.

Breaking point

According to police union SGP-FO, violence has been on the rise in recent months in Grenoble.

"Police are at breaking point," said regional union chief Daniel Chomette, who called for reinforcements.

The casino at Uriage-les-Bains was the third to be attacked in southeastern France and Switzerland since late March.

An alleged accomplice of Boudouda escaped during the shoot-out and is still on the run. Police found between €20 000 and €40 000 in the back of the getaway car.

Prosecutor Jean Philippe said the police had acted in legitimate self-defence when they were fired on at least three times after a car chase which ended in La Villeneuve.

The police fired back, hitting Boudouda in the head, he said.

An autopsy was to be carried out on Saturday on Boudouda, who had three convictions for armed robbery.

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