A bomb exploded at a Paris landmark for the third evening in succession today, raising fears that France may have become the target of Middle East terrorists seeking to secure the release of Arab prisoners from French jails.
The bomb, which went off in a large sporting goods store in the shopping mall known as Les Halles, injured at least nine persons. A total of 22 persons have been injured since the present wave of bombings began on Monday evening with an attack on a shopping gallery off the Champs Elysees.
The bombings appeared to follow a distinct pattern, all taking place in crowded shopping centers in the early evening. Police said that the first two bombs were relatively small, homemade devices, designed to cause panic and injury rather than heavy casualties.
According to the Paris newspaper Le Monde, French intelligence experts believe that the new wave of bombings could be intended to bring pressure on the Socialist government to negotiate the exchange of French hostages in Lebanon with criminals in French jails convicted of terrorist crimes.
Responsibility for the first attack at the Champs Elysees was taken by a previously unknown group calling itself the Committee of Solidarity with Arab and Middle East Political Prisoners. A letter addressed to the French news service Agence France-Presse demanded the release of two Arabs and an Armenian now held in France.
An extremist Islamic group holding four Frenchmen in Lebanon also has called for the release of Arab terrorists in French jails, notably a five-man commando group that attempted unsuccessfully to assassinate former Iranian prime minister Shahpour Bakhtiar in July 1980. The kidnapers also demanded that France improve its strained relations with Iran and repay the Tehran government for $1 billion in confiscated Iranian assets.
French officials said that the negotiations for the release of the hostages have reached a particularly delicate stage. Both the Iranian and Syrian governments have played mediating roles, but the group holding the hostages is reportedly continuing to press for its demands to be met in full.
The Socialist government would like to secure the release of the hostages, who were kidnaped in Beirut between March and May last year, in time for crucial parliamentary elections on March 16.
Releasing convicted terrorists from French jails poses a major public relations problem for the French authorities. The members of the anti-Bakhtiar commando group were convicted of the murder of two persons, including a policeman, and were sentenced to life imprisonment.
French police are now reported to believe that there could be a link between the latest bombings and pre-Christmas attacks on two large department stores here that injured 39 persons and were initially blamed on a lone crank. Among the remnants of one of the December bombs was a scrap of a Kuwaiti newspaper apparently used to wrap the explosive device. A witness in the Gallerie Printemps, one of the department stores bombed then, spoke of seeing two men "with Mediterranean characteristics" leave the store just before the explosion.
This evening's bombing took place at the FNAC sporting goods store in Les Halles, a huge shopping mall not far from the Pompidou Center. Including boutiques, restaurants and movie theaters on the site of what used to be the largest wholesale food market in Paris, the mall attracts up to 80,000 people a day.
Police said that a telephone warning of a bomb was received by the store shortly before the blast, but it came too late to evacuate any customers. The store manager said he had seen someone come in and leave a package shortly before the explosion.