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Prison in Southeastern France Flooded

December 5, 2003

ARLES, France (AP) _ Masked elite police officers ferried nearly 200 high-risk inmates, including convicted terrorists, to safety Friday from a flooded prison in southeastern France.

The dramatic evacuation forced after torrential rains this week swamped the region, killed five people, broke dikes and halted train and road traffic.

While flooding receded elsewhere Friday, much of the town of Arles was under three feet of water after a dike holding back the swollen Rhone River gave way in places, forcing the evacuation of 800 people overnight, officials said.

The floodwater encircled Arles prison, inundating it and forcing guards to move ground-floor inmates to the second floor on Thursday.

Friday morning, nearly 200 law enforcement officers _ including members of an elite SWAT team _ began ferrying small groups of inmates in orange rubber boats across a half-mile stretch of water to trucks that took them to other prisons in the region.

The 193 inmates, handcuffed and wearing life vests, included Jean-Marc Rouillan, head of the dismantled left-wing terror group Direct Action, and its top bomb maker, Max Frerot. He serves as the prison librarian.

Also being transferred were about 10 Corsican separatists, including one serving a 28-year term for killing a SWAT team officer. Most of Arles prison’s inmates are serving long sentences.

``It’s a delicate, exceptional operation,″ said Christian Fremont, the region’s top local official. The transfer started at 8:30 a.m, with the most dangerous prisoners moved first.

The evacuation came on orders of Justice Minister Dominique Perben, who briefly visited the prison Friday afternoon.

Flooding had knocked out the electrical, telephone and alarm systems, according to a statement from the prison workers’ union.

Some 400 German technicians with pumping equipment were called in to dredge Arles, 60 miles north of Marseille. Four hundred more were expected, said Nicolas Hefner of the German government’s disaster relief agency, Technical Aid Service.

The Bouche-du-Rhone region around Marseille was hardest hit by the floods, with the city declared a disaster area.

Update hourly