French Police Evict 500 Squatters

Police evicted about 500 people, many of them illegal immigrants, who were squatting at a former university residence south of Paris, drawing criticism from rights advocates.

Authorities ordered the eviction Thursday in the suburb of Cachan because of fears a fire could break out. Several fires swept through dilapidated housing in Paris last year, killing about 50 people, mostly African immigrants.

Some residents barricaded themselves inside the building and threw possessions out of windows in protest, said Pablo Krasnopolsky, an official of the Education Without Borders Network, which helps illegal immigrants threatened with expulsion.

About 500 police evacuated 508 people, including 141 children, local officials said. Police detained 69 people, but they were later released.

"There were no clashes, there were no injuries, there was no blood," regional leader Bernard Tomasini told reporters at a news conference in the nearby town of Creteil. "Law enforcement personnel were very careful."

About 200 people have accepted the local government's offer for temporary housing and will be lodged in area hotels.

Legal French residents will be able to apply for social housing, the government of the Val-de-Marne region said. At least 49 illegal immigrants faced deportation.

The Right to Housing group criticized the sweep, saying authorities were not offering permanent solutions to the dislodged families and demanding that illegal immigrants be granted residency.

More than 300 rooms of the former university residence were taken over in 2001 by squatters who improvised electrical wiring. Police had previously evicted some of the residents and had an agreement with the remaining squatters to gradually empty the building, but some refused to comply.

"Faced with the fire hazard, this situation of stalemate could no longer be tolerated and a total evacuation was therefore decided," the local government said.

Thousands of illegal immigrants in France face deportation in a crackdown by Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy. Illegal immigration is a top issue in next year's French presidential elections, in which Sarkozy is a leading contender.