New Corsica protest day after Muslim prayer hall attacked

Jeanne Colonna
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Demonstrators march towards the prefecture in Ajaccio during a protest on December 26, 2015

Demonstrators march towards the prefecture in Ajaccio during a protest on December 26, 2015 (AFP Photo/Yannick Graziani)

Ajaccio (France) (AFP) - Dozens of angry Corsicans staged a fresh protest on the French Mediterranean island on Saturday, a day after demonstrators vandalised a Muslim prayer hall and trashed copies of the Koran after an assault on firefighters.

As condemnation poured in from Muslim authorities and French officials over Friday's anti-Arab protests, around 100 demonstrators shouting "We're still here" turned out in the same low-income neighbourhood of the capital Ajaccio where the Christmas day violence took place.

Despite a heavy police presence, one demonstrator managed to smash three glass entrance doors in the Jardins de l'Empereur housing estate perched on an Ajaccio hillside as protesters shouted "This is our home!" and "Arabs get out".

Like the demonstration that ended in trouble the previous day, the protest had initially aimed to denounce violence against police and firefighters on the estate.

Two firefighters and a police officer were wounded in the neighbourhood overnight on Christmas Eve after a fire was "deliberately lit ... to ambush police and firefighters", said regional official Francois Lalanne.

A firefighter at the scene said hooded youths who attacked the officers shouted at them: "Scram, Corsicans, you're not at home here!"

On Saturday one of the injured firefighters said they had "really dodged a catastrophe, there could have been deaths."

"We were overtaken in a real ambush by about 20 people armed with iron bars, baseball bats, hooded," the firefighter told a French television station. "They tried to hit us, open the truck, but they did succeed in smashing the windows (of the truck).

One resident of the housing estate told AFP Saturday that attackers were "a very small group of youths" who have little direction in life.

"The parents abandon them, the problem is education," said 35-year-old Mehdi. "But us, we want to all live together, without a problem."

- 'Disastrous image of Corsica' -

On Friday, 600 people had gathered in front of police headquarters in Ajaccio in a show of support for the police and firefighters. But some 300 broke away to head for the housing estate.

Shouting xenophobic slogans, the group smashed a Muslim prayer room, partially burning books including copies of the Koran, said Lalanne.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls wrote on Twitter that the break-in was "an unacceptable desecration", while also condemning the "intolerable attack" on the wounded firefighters.

Anouar Kbibech, president of the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), said he had learnt of the mosque attack and the burning of "several copies of the Koran" with "distress".

The ransacked Muslim prayer hall has been put back in order and the faithful were able to use it on Saturday, France's BFM-TV reported.

But after three tense days in the island's capital, the prefect of Corsica, Christophe Mirmand, said he asked for and obtained an end to the protests.

"I met with a delegation to ask them to stop these movements and this demonstration which is conveying a disastrous image of Corsica," he told journalists after the talks.

For their part the protesters said they were satisfied with the actions being taken by the authorities, including "deploying police in all the neighbourhoods".

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve has said the attack on the Muslim prayer hall showed signs of "racism and xenophobia".

He also condemned the assault on law enforcement and safety officers in Corsica, saying he hoped "the authors of the violence would be identified and arrested as soon as possible."