Adel Benna tried to put himself in the shoes of his shy 17-year-old brother, Ziad, and two teenage friends who scaled a wall and leapt into the cables of a power substation last Thursday evening -- willing to face electrocution rather than the French police officers they were trying to evade in this impoverished Paris suburb.
"Young people don't just throw themselves into an electrical current," Benna said Tuesday, his voice trembling in anger. "They looked behind them and saw something that made them so terrified, so desperate, they did it out of absolute fear. I hate the police. They are responsible for my brother's death."
Ziad Benna and his friend Bouna Traore, 15, sons of working-class African Muslim immigrants, were both electrocuted, setting off five days of rioting, firebombing and car burning that continued here Tuesday. The third youth survived.
Groups of young men have attacked postal service vans and a police station, and set fire to trash bins during rampages that spread into neighboring suburban towns Tuesday. The French news media reported that about three dozen law enforcement officials and rioters have been injured in the violence.
On Tuesday morning, parking lots and street curbs were littered with hulks of dozens of burned vehicles.
The street fighting less than an hour's subway ride from the heart of Paris has underscored France's failed efforts to stem the growing unrest within a largely Muslim immigrant population that feels disenfranchised and is beset by high unemployment and crime. An estimated 6 million Muslims live in France, many of them in dismal high-rise enclaves like this one.
"It's unemployment, it's pressure -- it just exploded," Bouhout Abderrahmane, 54, who heads the local Muslim Cultural Association, said Tuesday morning, visibly exhausted after an all-night effort to quell the continuing violence in this town.
Many residents were outraged Sunday night when a police tear gas canister was thrown into a local mosque during prayers for Ramadan, the Muslim holy month. An estimated 700 coughing and panicked worshipers ran for the doors.
Residents accused the police of deliberately attacking the mosque. French officials said they were investigating the incident, which occurred during police skirmishes with youths near the place of worship, a white concrete box of a building attached to a small grocery.
The violence focused criticism on Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, a prominent candidate in the 2007 presidential stakes. The week before the youths' deaths, he had announced "a war without mercy" on crime in the Paris suburbs.
Sarkozy, who has also called for affirmative action programs, fumbled in his initial response to the violence. He at first referred to the two dead boys as juvenile delinquents who were wanted in connection with a robbery, then amended that to say they were suspected of vandalizing a construction site.
On Monday, during a visit to the nearby police station, he said the youths were "not criminals" and had no criminal records, and promised a full investigation so that "everyone will know the truth."
In response to the crime problem in the suburbs, Sarkozy said he would deploy more police on the streets and dispatch more undercover agents to penetrate criminal gangs. He said he would start an experimental program in Clichy-sous-Bois to mount video cameras atop police cars to record the actions of suspects and to show that "police are behaving properly" during arrests.
Residents say more police will only exacerbate tensions.
"People are fed up with being controlled by cops, being stopped over and over," said Jean-Jacques Eyquem, a 53-year-old taxi driver who has lived in this town of 28,000 for most of his life.
"My brother paid the price of zero tolerance with his life," Adel Benna said in an interview, referring to Sarkozy's anti-crime mantra.
According to Benna, his brother and two other friends had been playing a game of pickup soccer and were on their way home to break the daily Ramadan fast last Thursday when they spotted a police checkpoint. Officers there were demanding identity papers, a common tactic in the high-crime neighborhoods of the Paris suburbs.
One of the boys had left his papers at home, Benna said. Hungry and fearful of being dragged into the police station after a day of fasting, Benna said, they tried to dodge the checkpoint.
Witnesses told the family that police began chasing the boys, according to Benna and other relatives. French officials have given several versions of the incident, with some officials saying that although the youths were not pursued by police, they believed they were being chased, and panicked. The teenager who survived, the son of Turkish immigrants, is undergoing surgery for severe burns, according to family members.
In a memorial march for the two youths over the weekend, a group of friends and neighbors wore white T-shirts emblazoned with the French words for "Dead for nothing."
Benna described his brother, Ziad, the youngest of five children, as "very shy, very nice, very helpful -- he was a good boy, the baby of the family."
Their father works for the city of Paris as a truck driver based just a block from the Eiffel Tower, in one of the city's most affluent neighborhoods. As he earned enough money over the years, he brought members of his family from their native Tunisia to live in the small apartment in a shabby, 11-story high-rise in Clichy-sous-Bois, which means Clichy Under the Woods. All signs of woods disappeared decades ago.
Ziad, who arrived four years ago, was struggling to learn French in school, Benna said. In a community where 25 percent of all heads of household are unemployed, Ziad was thrilled that his high school teacher had arranged for him to start a vocational training program this week, according to his brother.