Trains in Vain

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The French love their trains, but these days they're boarding them warily. Last week their government confirmed that its security forces have for the past three months played a cat-and-mouse game with a group that calls itself AZF. The hitherto unknown group has threatened to bomb France's railroads unless the government forks over a hefty ransom.

Beginning in December, AZF sent the President and Interior Ministry letters grousing about the state of French society and warning that it had planted bombs along the nation's rail lines and at two other unidentified vulnerable targets. Officials say they were instructed to communicate with the group via personal ads in a newspaper, using the code name "Big Wolf" for AZF and "Suzy" for the ministry. A day after officials posted one such ad, they received the GPS coordinates of a sophisticated bomb that had been planted along a line in central France, which ballistics experts detonated.

Last week French officials tried to pay AZF the equivalent of $5.2 million it had demanded for revealing the location of other bombs. But after an attempt to deliver the ransom to a field 65 miles south of Paris failed, French officials dispatched 10,000 workers to inspect the nation's 20,000 miles of tracks. They found nothing. "We're still taking this extremely seriously because we know these people are very organized and intelligent," says a French security official. He says AZF's missives suggest it is an "extreme leftist, perhaps anarchist" group but stops short of calling it a terrorist outfit. Terrorists, he observes, make political demands and don't provide warnings of specific plots. "This seems like a new form of high-stakes extortion," he says.