French investigators were heading to Ivory Coast Tuesday to search for the suspected leader of a gang accused of kidnapping and killing a young Jewish man in what French authorities call an anti-Semitic crime.
Anger over the brutal incident has mounted among Jewish and anti-racism groups, who accused police of initially ignoring the anti-Semitic nature of the attack. The case reached the top levels of government Monday, with the prime minister and interior minister urging that the suspects be prosecuted.
Authorities found 23-year-old Ilan Halimi naked, handcuffed and covered with burn marks last week near railroad tracks in the Essonne region south of Paris . He died on his way to a hospital.
Investigating judge Corinne Goetzmann on Monday placed seven people under investigation step short of formal charges for the alleged plot to kidnap and kill on religious, racial or ethnic motives.
Police are looking for two women and the suspected ringleader, who remain at large. Based on reports that the leader had fled to Abidjan , police were heading to the capital of Ivory Coast on Tuesday to search for him, judicial officials said.
Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy was to meet with Halimi's family and members of a leading Jewish group in France later Tuesday. Sarkozy on Monday denounced the "barbaric, odious, villainous crime," and vowed a thorough search for suspects.
Halimi's case has touched a nerve in France , which has western Europe's largest Jewish population and has seen a rise in anti-Semitic crime in recent years.
"These acts are a test for Europe . Jihadi violence, hatred and anti-Semitism must be prevented from taking root in French soil," Shimon Samuels of the Simon Wiesenthal Center said in a statement addressed to Sarkozy.
The alleged gang is also accused of at least six other kidnapping attempts. Police have said the other victims were not Jewish, but the Wiesenthal Center said some were Jewish.
Halimi, a mobile phone salesman in northeast Paris , was kidnapped Jan. 21 after a meeting with a young woman. His family later received a series of ransom demands starting with one for 450,000 euros (nearly US$537,000).
Under questioning by investigators, one of the suspects "made it clear that he had attacked Halimi 'because he was Jewish, and Jews are rich'," Justice Minister Pascal Clement has said, reports the AP.
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