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Separatists on French ‘Isle of Beauty’ Target the Mainland

December 9, 1996

BASTIA, Corsica (AP) _ A truck engine backfires on this Mediterranean island, booming like an Abrams tank. That no one even flinches speaks volumes about what it’s like to be a Corsican.

The shell-shocked island rumbles nearly nightly with bombings by shadowy ski-masked separatists fighting to break away from France. And as the attacks spill over to the mainland, the stakes are rising.

``France thinks we’re their little colony. The goal of the violence is to shake Paris, which isn’t listening to us,″ said Marie-Helene Mattei, an activist lawyer who represents the separatist group Cuncolta Naziunalista.

The highly centralized government in Paris was forced to listen on Oct. 5 when a faction of the Front for the National Liberation of Corsica bombed the city hall in Bordeaux, where Prime Minister Alain Juppe is mayor. A month later, the same faction bombed a post office in Aix-en-Provence, a quiet, southern college town popular with foreign students.

And on Nov. 27, a bomb heavily damaged the headquarters of Corsica’s main ferry company in the Mediterranean port city of Marseille. Investigators at a nearby police station who heard the explosion said they suspected separatists.

No one was injured in any of the attacks _ a hallmark so far of the separatists’ political attacks _ but the message was menacingly clear: Leave us alone, or else.

``We’re committed and nothing will stop us,″ said Alain Orsoni, head of the more moderate Movement for Self-Determination.

Officially, Orsoni’s group seeks a political solution to Corsica’s 20-year-old campaign for autonomy as well as a halt to the fierce rivalries among separatist groups that have led to gangland-style slayings of dozens of militants. The latter is one area where the separatists have shown no qualms about shedding blood.

Violence has scarred Orsoni’s headquarters in the southwestern city of Ajaccio, Corsica’s de facto capital and the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte. ``Died for Corsica,″ a sign reads below large black-and-white photographs of a half dozen unshaven, unsmiling young men.

Corsicans have been living by the sword _ and dying _ for centuries. Their nationalist symbol is the silhouette of a bandit with a bandanna wrapped around his head. There is a handgun in practically every home, and in France the island’s murder rate is second only to the Paris area’s. Arms trafficking and mafia-style racketeering abound.

To some Corsicans, the nationalists are folk heroes. But others are weary of the bloody internal clashes over whether Corsica should be a nation or remain part of France with greater powers to manage day-to-day affairs.

``There are too many ideas about what this island should be,″ said Antoine Versini, a leathery-skinned fisherman mending his nets on Ajaccio’s sun-dappled Quai Napoleon.

``Even when I was a child, there was violence,″ he said. ``It’s tiresome now to see it get worse.″

Corsica already has a measure of autonomy, including a regional assembly that can adopt policies like school curricula and zoning rules. But it cannot enact laws, such as adopting its own criminal code or making the local tongue, a Tuscan dialect, the official language.

Separatists say limited autonomy is not enough, and they bristle at the bureaucrats sent by Paris to run many public functions.

``The assembly has no teeth,″ complained Jean-Michel Emmanuelli, a real estate agent and Cuncolta Naziunalista activist. ``There’s too much administration. We’re an island of 250,000 people with 25,000 French functionaries.″

That is about double the ratio of bureaucrats to ordinary citizens on the mainland.

Apart from occasional police crackdowns to reassure tourists lured by the rugged ``Isle of Beauty’s″ craggy coastline and sawtooth mountains, the French government had seemed content to let the rival groups battle it out.

But now, fearing more attacks on the mainland, Juppe has personally taken control of the crisis from Interior Minister Jean-Louis Debre.

``The state won’t let itself be intimidated by terrorists,″ Juppe declared.

That has not swayed militants.

On Oct. 30, a faction of the Front for the National Liberation of Corsica exploded 200 pounds of explosives to level the new, $3 million Ajaccio headquarters of France Telecom.

``Political violence can be useful to defend the interests of the Corsican people,″ the faction said in a statement. ``We will use it today as we did yesterday.″

The militants are getting more sophisticated, using remote controls to detonate bombs. And they recently fired a Russian-made rocket into a police barracks in the southern city of Porto-Vecchio, apparently as a warning because it had a dummy warhead.

But Mattei, the lawyer, says all the militants really need are the basics: guns (``Everyone has one″), plastic explosives (``You can put them anywhere″) and gasoline bottle bombs (``They’re cheap and easy to make″).

``Violence and politics _ it’s the same strategy to us,″ she said. ``We have a culture imprinted with violence. It’s our tradition. So is wanting to be a nation. It’s what we’ve sought since the beginning.″

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