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CRIME

Thieves pillage seven tonnes of grapes from Bordeaux vineyards

At least seven tonnes of grapes were stolen in the dead of night from vineyards in France's prime winegrowing region of Bordeaux after a yield hit by poor weather, police say.

Thieves pillage seven tonnes of grapes from Bordeaux vineyards
Photo: AFP

Three vineyards have had grapes and even whole vines stolen since mid-September, police told AFP on Wednesday.

They said about six and a half tonnes of grapes disappeared from a vineyard in Genissac near the world-famous Saint Emilion region, adding that the theft was clearly committed by professional vintners.

Between 600 and 700 kilogrammes (1,300 and 1,500 pounds) of grapes were stolen from a vineyard in Pomerol, which produces top quality reds.

Thieves also uprooted 500 vines from a vineyard in nearby Montagne, police said.

A fourth grape robbery took place in Lalande-de-Pomerol, according to a local press report.

Thieves making away with grapes is not a new phenomenon but it has surged this year apparently because of a disastrous yield.

“There's a great temptation to help oneself from (the vineyard) next door,” an industry expert told AFP on condition of anonymity.

France faces its poorest wine harvest since 1945 after an unusually mild March and frosty April, experts said last month, although a hot summer promises to deliver top vintages.

The agriculture ministry said output was expected to total 37.2 million hectolitres (983 million US gallons), 18 percent less than 2016 and 17 percent below the average over the past five years.

The 2016 harvest was already one of the poorest in 30 years.

This year, bitter cold struck twice within a week in April, ravaging the fragile shoots and buds that had emerged prematurely following mild temperatures in March.

To combat the frost, nervous Bordeaux winemakers set fires in oil drums, then positioned them carefully between the rows of budding grapevines. Giant fans were also deployed to battle the cold, damp air settling on the plants.

At the prestigious Vinexpo wine fair in Bordeaux in June, winemakers brainstormed over how to mitigate challenges to their livelihood posed by climate change.

CRIME

French court jails for life sole surviving Paris 2015 attacker

The sole surviving member of an Islamic State terror cell that killed 130 people in Paris in November 2015 was handed a whole-life sentence on Wednesday at the end of a trial that aimed to draw a line under the worst peace-time atrocity in modern French history.

French court jails for life sole surviving Paris 2015 attacker

Salah Abdeslam, a 32-year-old Frenchman of Moroccan origin, was captured alive by police four months after the bloodbath at the Bataclan concert hall and other locations.

His sentence, the toughest possible, was read out by the head of five-judge panel overseeing the trial of 20 men accused of involvement in the assault on the capital.

Wearing a khaki-coloured polo shirt, he stood motionless and showed no emotion as he was declared guilty and sentenced by chief judge Louis Peries during an hour-long speech.

“The sentences are quite heavy,” one tearful survivor, Sophie, told AFP as she left the court in central Paris. “I feel a lot of relief. Ten months of hearings — it’s helped us to rebuild.”

The trial has been the biggest in modern French history, the culmination of a six-year international investigation whose findings run to more than a million pages.

READ MORE: The difficult and emotional search for truth at France’s biggest terrorism trial

The other 19 suspects, accused of either plotting or offering logistical support, were also found guilty, with their sentences ranging from two years to life in prison.

All of the attackers except for Abdeslam blew themselves up or were killed by police during or after the assault.

Hundreds of victims and witnesses packed out the benches of the specially constructed courtroom as the sentences were read out.

“My first reaction is that we have the feeling of turning a page after the verdicts,” Gerard Chemla, a lawyer representing victims at the trial, told reporters.

Change of heart?

Abdeslam had begun his appearances last September by defiantly declaring himself as an “Islamic State fighter” but finished tearfully apologising to victims and asking for leniency.

In his final statement, he urged the judges not to give him a full-life term, seeking to emphasise that he had not killed anyone himself.

“I made mistakes, it’s true. But I’m not a murderer, I’m not a killer,” he said.

His lawyers had also argued against the whole-life sentence, which prosecutors had demanded.

It offers only a small chance of parole after 30 years and has been pronounced only four times previously since being created in 1994.

Abdeslam, a one-time pot-smoking lover of parties, discarded his suicide belt on the night of the attack and fled back to his hometown, Brussels, where many of the extremists lived.

He told the court that he had had a change of heart and decided not to kill people.

“I changed my mind out of humanity, not out of fear,” he insisted.

But after hearing that his suicide belt was defective, the judges concluded that this “cast serious doubt” on his apparent “renunciation”.

They ruled he was a “co-author” of the attacks which “constituted a single crime scene.” 

Trauma

A team of 10 jihadists laid siege to the French capital, attacking the national sports stadium, bars, and the Bataclan in an assault immediately claimed from Syria by the IS group.

The attacks shocked France, with the choice of targets and the manner of the violence seemingly designed to inflict maximum fear, just 10 months after a separate assault on the Charlie Hebdo magazine.

In one instance, the court heard a recording of gunmen taunting people trapped in the Bataclan as they fired on them with Kalashnikov machine guns from a balcony above.

The huge loss of life marked the start of a gruesome and violent period in Europe as IS ramped up attacks across the continent.

France, under then president Francois Hollande, declared the country “at war” with the extremists and their self-proclaimed caliphate in Syria and Iraq.

Hollande, who testified in November, called the trial “exceptional” and “exemplary”, adding in a statement that the accused had been “judged with respect for the law”.

The 10-month process had “enabled us to look for the truth in order to better understand the course of Islamist terrorism”, he said.

Other culprits

In the absence of the rest of the attackers, the men on trial besides Abdeslam were suspected of offering mostly logistical support or plotting other attacks. 

Only 14 out of the 20 appeared in person, with the rest missing, presumed dead.

One of them, Mohamed Abrini, admitted to driving some of the Paris attackers to the capital and explained how he was meant to take part but backed out.

The court handed him a life sentence with 22 years as a minimum term.

Also on trial was Swedish citizen Osama Krayem, who has been identified in a notorious IS video showing a Jordanian pilot being burned alive in a cage.

He was sentenced to 30 years in jail and ordered to serve two thirds of it behind bars, as was fellow jihadist Sofian Ayari, a Tunisian arrested along with Abdeslam in Brussels in March 2015.

The pair were suspected of planning an attack on Amsterdam airport.

All of the convicted are able to appeal their verdicts and sentences.

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