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The brutal beating by vigilantes of a Roma teenager who is now fighting for his life has shocked France, with President Francois Hollande on Tuesday decrying an “unspeakable and unjustifiable” act.
Accused of robbery, the 16-year-old called Darius was dragged into a basement in a town north of Paris on Friday, savagely beaten by a dozen residents of a housing estate and left unconscious in a supermarket trolley where he was later found.
News of the attack in Pierrefitte-sur-Seine emerged only on Monday, sparking widespread condemnation.
Hollande asked “that everything be done to find those responsible for this attack” and Prime Minister Manuel Valls also hit out at the perpetrators.
The teenager, who lived with his family and other Roma in a squalid camp that had sprung up around an abandoned house, was accused of breaking into an apartment in the estate.
A police officer said a group of assailants took the boy away by force, then locked him in a basement and beat him.
“The loot was just a few pieces of jewellery as the perpetrator fled once he was seen by a very young witness. (The witness) gave a description that corresponded with a young man, who was quickly hunted, kidnapped, held, beaten and left to die,” said Sylvie Moisson, a prosecutor in charge of the case.
The attack was founded on rumours, said Moisson, who called it “an act of barbarism”.
Another source close to the case said that about “a dozen people” took part in the attack. It was the boy's mother who alerted police that her son had been kidnapped.
A judicial source, also requesting anonymity, said the boy's “life is in danger”.
“He is in a coma. Doctors cannot yet give an opinion on the development of his health situation,” Moisson said.
Michel Fourcade, the mayor of Pierrefitte-sur-Seine, said the boy had been questioned by police several times this month in connection with a string of robberies in the housing project.
This had fuelled anger towards the group of Roma, an ethnic minority also known as gypsies, who had set up camp close to the estate.
Ion Vardu, who lives next to the Roma camp in Pierrefitte-sur-Seine, said 200 members of the traditionally nomadic community had arrived three weeks ago.
On Monday the camp lay abandoned, with rubbish, clothing and mattresses strewn in the garden after the Romas' rapid departure following the attack on the teenager.
“They left immediately,” Vardu said.
Roma have long faced discrimination across Europe.
The Nazis killed hundreds of thousands of Roma during World War 2, and even now rights organisations have warned of a spike in violence against the community in Europe.
An April report by Amnesty International slammed European countries for not doing enough to protect their Roma communities.
Many of France's 20 000 Roma live in extreme poverty in makeshift settlements with little or no access to basic amenities including even water.
Their presence in the illegal camps on the fringes of towns and cities has often spurred controversy in France where they are accused of being behind a rise in petty crime.
France also pursues a controversial policy of forcibly evicting Roma from their camps, often paying them to return to their countries of origin, mainly Romania and Bulgaria.
Romania's foreign ministry on Tuesday asked France to do all it could to bring to justice the perpetrators of the assault on “a minor presumably of Romanian origin”.
France's SOS Racisme, meanwhile, said the attack was the “obvious result of nauseating tensions faced by our fellow citizens”.
Last year, French authorities evicted a record 19 380 members of the community from camps.
The issue sparked nationwide student protests in October after authorities took a 15-year-old Roma girl off a bus in front of her classmates during a school trip and deported her along with her family to Kosovo.
Valls, then interior minister, also came under stinging criticism a month earlier when he said most Roma in France had no intention of integrating and should be sent back to their countries of origin. - Sapa-AFP