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CRIME

Man ‘shot toddler dead after cleaning row’

A man suspected of shooting his girlfriend's three-year-old daughter in a violent rage over the cleanliness of their flat has been charged with the toddler's murder, police said Thursday.

The tragic case in Toulouse, southwestern France, is the latest in a series of high-profile crimes which have placed the issue of repeat offenders at the top of President François Hollande's security agenda.

Public prosecutor Michel Valet said the suspect in the Toulouse shooting, identified as Thierry C., had apparently killed his victim by firing a rifle shot through the door of the flat's bathroom, in which the girl's mother had fled with her three children after being attacked.

The bullet struck the three-year-old in the forehead. Alerted by neighbours, police intercepted the suspect leaving the flat with a bag containing an automatic pistol and a rifle.

"From what we have been able to establish, it seems his rage was triggered by a row about the cleaning of the flat," the prosecutor said Thierry C., whose two previous convictions included one for violent robbery, claimed the gun had gone off accidentally.

Hollande admitted last week that France's judicial system had to improve its handling of convicts with the potential to offend again.

"How can it be that a criminal who has served time in prison but evidently still represents a danger to society cannot be subject to surveillance or some form of control?" Hollande asked last week in a speech honouring two slain policewomen.

The officers were shot dead in June by Abdallah Boumezar, a serial offender who had only just been given a six-month suspended sentence for a violent attack on his own mother.

The issue of repeat offenders was also highlighted by this month's arrest of Sebastian Dutheil on charges of raping two 11-year-old girls and sexually assaulting three other minors on campsites in the Ardeche region of central France.

Dutheil, 32, had been convicted in 2000 of a serious sexual assault on a 15-year-old girl. As a result he was on a national DNA data base of criminals but had not been subject to any monitoring.

Following his arrest this month, his first victim came forward to express her fury.

"The whole point of me going to the police back then was to ensure he couldn't do the same thing to someone else," Estelle told BFM TV. "Now he's done it again, I'm really, really angry."

What, if anything, the government can do to avoid a repeat of this kind of situation is however far from clear.

With France's prisons already overflowing, Justice Minister Christiane Taubira has made it clear she does not regard tougher sentencing as an option on either practical or philosophical grounds.

Taubira is due to present proposals on the new administration's penal policy to her cabinet colleagues next week, but all the signs are that any significant reforms will be put off until a cross-party consultative committee completes its work on the subject, which will not be until the end of the year
at least.

Asked what was being done to implement Hollande's pledge, a spokesman for Taubira replied: "An analysis is under way as to how the president's proposals can be elaborated whilst respecting constitutional imperatives."

The Socialists' right-wing predecessors introduced legislation in 2008 which made it possible for violent criminals who have served 15 years or more to be detained in custody at the end of their sentences if they are considered to still represent a threat to society.

The legislation was watered down when France's constitutional committee ruled it could not apply to individuals convicted prior to the act being adopted.

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WILDFIRES

French police track forest fire-starters by air and land

On the ground, two officers from a special mobile brigade of France's paramilitary gendarmerie speed along a forest track.

French police track forest fire-starters by air and land

Above them, a helicopter scans the landscape to warn them of any fires or anyone who might be looking to start one.

These are the members of a newly created police team who have just started patrolling in southwest France to seek out and arrest the fire-starters devastating the region’s forests.

In the last week, no less than 20 fires have broken out in the forest bordering the seaside resort of Soulac-sur-Mer in the La Gironde department of southwest France, says the local gendarmerie.

While some have burned for just a 100 square metres (322 square feet), the largest devoured 30 hectares (74 acres) of forest.

Scorched trees and charred trunks line the paths and cycle paths that criss-cross the woods.

To stop the devastation, local officials have sent in the new unit, the Forest Vigilance Platoon (PVF) made up of 15 reservist gendarmes, a senior police officer and two motorcyclists from the mobile brigade, backed up by the
helicopter.

Spread across three zones, the PVF patrol the forest on motorbikes, all-terrain bicycles or in cars, where possible, on the hunt for fire-starters.

Set up just last week they started patrolling on Thursday.

The idea is that the PVF will free up firefighters who have been stretched thin battling blazes that since Tuesday have burned up 7,400 hectares of pine forests at the southern end of Gironde.

“After the major fires in July, we observed a rise in the number of arson cases,” said Martin Guespereau, deputy prefect for defence and security in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region, which covers the Gironde.

“There are around twenty fires of unknown origin a day in Gironde.”

¬†According to France’s National Forests Office (ONF) nine out of 10 fires were started by people — and three out of 10 were started deliberately.

Forest off-limits

“The Forest Vigilance Platoon is a support division, whose aim is to prevent, detect and possible to arrest,” said Captain Christophe Roque, who was given the job of putting the team together.

Red-and-white signs at the edge of the Soulac-sur-Mer forest inform walkers that due to the “very severe” risk of fire, the forest is off-limits to the public until further notice — and has been since August 11.

A few cyclists were nevertheless out on the trails on Saturday, and were quickly intercepted by the gendarmes of the PVF.

“As soon as we come across someone, we get their identity,” said one member of the team, Bruno Kechtoff. “Because if we come across the same person several times, then that becomes suspicious.”

A message comes over the radio: two outbreaks of fire barely 500 metres (yards) apart, near Bazas, south of Bordeaux, the regional capital. A local has reported seeing someone on a moped wearing “yellow-trimmed” trousers”.

The LVF’s helicopter veers off towards Bazas, 130 kilometres away (80 miles) away.

Where they are sent next depends on where the next fires break out, says Constable Jeremy Hernandez. “We have been called here urgently but we can move if other areas are concerned.”

Then they are in their car and driving off, siren wailing, on the look-out for a quad reported in the woods.

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