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February 08, 2017

AULNAY-SOUS-BOIS, France (AP) — Protesters burned cars and menaced security forces in an eruption of violence in a Paris suburb early Tuesday over a young black man allegedly being raped by a police baton, and authorities said 17 people were being charged.

Six adults would be tried in immediate hearings in a suburb court Wednesday under charges of “ambush” or “acts of violence and gathering with weapons,” while 11 minors were to be presented to a juvenile court judge for alleged ambush, the prosecutor’s office in Bobigny said Tuesday night.

Police initially detained 26 people during the pre-dawn outburst in which a police car and other vehicles were set afire in Aulnay-sous-Bois, a working class suburb northeast of Paris. At one point, police encircled by an angry crowd fired warning shots into the air using real bullets, according to French press reports. No injuries were reported.

Firefighters raced to restore order after several shops were reported damaged and garbage bins burned in Aulnay-sous-Bois, which has a large minority population. Authorities are wary of unrest in France’s poor towns, remembering the fiery 2005 riots that spread through France — beginning in the Paris suburb of Clichy-Sous-Bois and hopscotching through social housing around the country.

The latest violence was a show of outrage in support of a young black man who authorities allege was sodomized with a police officer’s baton last week during a spate of identity checks as part of a police operation targeting drug traffickers. One officer was charged Sunday with aggravated rape and three others were charged with aggravated assault.

President Francois Hollande visited the alleged victim, identified only by his first name, Theo, on Tuesday afternoon at the suburban hospital where he has been treated since the incident, the Elysee Palace said.

In a video posted on Twitter page of the newspaper Le Parisien, Hollande stood talking to Theo, who was lying on a hospital bed. The president told him that “the legal process is underway” and that “we must trust it to get to the bottom of this.”

Then, speaking to the camera, Hollande said, “We are also thinking about Theo who has always been known for his exemplary behavior in a family … with good relations with police.” With Hollande standing beside him, Theo called for young people in Aulnay-sous-Bois to be calm.

“My town, you know that I love it very much. I would like to find it just as I left it. So guys, stop making war, be united, trust in the justice system and justice will be done,” Theo said. “Pray for me so I can return as soon as possible among you and be together. Thank you, thank you, Mister President.”

Earlier, Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve called for “the greatest firmness” should any of the four police officers implicated be proven guilty. Frederic Gabet, a lawyer for the officer charged with rape, has said that any injury inflicted was done accidentally.

After the early morning violence, Police Alliance spokesman Frederic Lagache said one officer narrowly escaped being burned when a protester set his vehicle on fire with a Molotov cocktail. “The objective is to kill cops and this is unacceptable,” Lagache said in an interview with Europe-1.

Local youths claim police habitually target them without cause. “Frankly, it’s pathetic. The kid (Theo), he plays football, he’s serious. He never was in trouble with the police,” said Sofiane Hajjobi, a 21-year-old resident. “It’s not normal. We’re all frustrated. Now we’re at war with the police.”

Theo, 22, told his story to the BFM television channel Monday. He said officers beat him and peppered him with racist insults. At one point, one of the officers took his truncheon and “he drove it into my buttocks,” he said.

The Associated Press does not typically identify victims of sexual assault. But, in this case, the victim and his family gave interviews to the media, and the French president publicly used the young man’s first name in his presence and in front of a camera.

Associated Press writers Elaine Ganley, Sylvie Corbet and Philippe Sotto in Paris contributed to this report.

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