Masked gangs attack migrants

Armed groups are targeting migrants in night attacks in Calais and elsewhere in northern France. The stalkers, sometimes masked, are armed with clubs, brass knuckles, pepper spray or knives, according to accounts by migrants and groups providing medical and legal help. 

After months of what appear to be organised attacks, police on Friday arrested seven men armed with iron bars and extendable batons after a suspected attack on five Iraqi Kurds at Loon-Plage, a port town between Calais and nearby Dunkirk. 

The seven faced charges of violence in a group and forming a group to commit violence, said Dunkirk prosecutor Eric Fouard. Some of the men, aged 24-47, said they sympathised with extreme-right movements in Calais, he said. "The ideas they peddle are that there are too many migrants in France." 

The head of a legal centre set up for the refugees in the makeshift Calais camp alleged on Saturday that those living there are regularly subject to police violence as well. Marianne Humbersot said she was filing 13 complaints - five against militia and eight against police. 

Migrants, who have converged in northern France hoping to sneak into Britain, have long complained about police brutality, accounts backed up by medical units that treat them. But attacks in recent months, accounts suggest, are organised and carried out by a militia-style group or groups, opening a new dimension of violence. 

A growing security crackdown aimed at keeping the thousands of migrants from Britain is giving Calais a fortress-like look. The city bristles with tall, barbed wire fences, blinks with police lights and is disfigured by open spaces cleared of bush. 

Yesterday, officials in the Pas-de-Calais region said half of the sprawling, makeshift migrant camp would be evacuated and 800 to 1000 migrants would have to leave their dwellings in the camp on the edge of Calais, which now has shops, mosques, churches and schools built by migrants and volunteers. 

Among the city's population, a potentially toxic cocktail of frustration and anger is brewing, with pro- and anti-migrant groups facing off in demonstrations. On social networks, anti-migrant groups, often calling themselves "patriots", are using increasingly virulent language. 

"We are playing with fire because people are becoming defensive. They are organising themselves," said the Doctors of the World coordinator for northern France Amin Trouve-Baghdouche. About 150 people defied a ban on a February 6 demonstration in Calais organised by the anti-Islam movement Pegida, which staged protests in numerous European countries that day. 

Police charged the Calais demonstration to end it, pulling a retired general who once headed the Foreign Legion into their security net. General Christian Piquemal was arrested, charged and ordered to stand trial along with four others, outraging some right and far-right politicians and his partisans. 

Three others, all armed, were convicted and given jail terms of up to three months. There are about 4200 migrants in Calais, from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea and elsewhere. The "jungle", as the open-air Calais migrant slum is known, embodies in one sprawling stretch of filth and mud the hardships, and horrors, of uprooted lives. 

And the city's tensions reflect simmering uncertainty around Europe as it absorbs one million Syrian refugees and other migrants who arrived last year. The bid to keep the travellers from accessing the Calais ferry port, the Eurotunnel and trucks making the journey to Britain has frustrated migrants, leaving them to take greater risks to make the crossing. Up to 20 have died since the end of June. 

A body was found this week in the waters of the port. Now, a new fear, being physically attacked, has surfaced. "Today, we have organised groups dressed in the same way with hoods who say they are police," said Baghdouche of Doctors of the World. 

The men were armed with clubs, iron bars, pepper spray and knives, he said, citing numerous accounts by migrants seeking medical aid. The attacks occurred in town or near the jungle camp - and now closer to Dunkirk. 

"They stop them, usually late, at 11pm to 3am, say they are police so obviously the migrants stop. They ask them to undress. They start to hit them until they fall down." Often the migrants are afraid to file complaints. 

- AP

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