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CALAIS, France – African migrants are ambushing trucks, jumping on vacationers' cars and fighting over turf, new tactics in an increasingly desperate struggle to cross the English Channel to Britain — the land they see as their Eldorado. Pouring in at an ever-faster pace, they are overwhelming Calais police and fueling a far-right backlash.
Calais officials in turn have hunkered down in crisis mode, increasing security and making threats to Britain, which they accuse of not helping to shoulder the burden.
Mayor Natacha Bouchart, saying her city is being held hostage, vowed last week to shut down the enormous port — an illegal act — if British Prime Minister David Cameron doesn't visit Calais to assess the problem.
City officials say at least 1,300 migrants, mainly from Africa — Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia — and Afghanistan, are now in Calais. They fear the number could rise to 5,000 by year's end. That represents a small portion of those flooding into Europe — most via Italy where some 60,000 have arrived so far this year — but those looking to go to Britain end up in Calais, a city of 75,000 with a soaring jobless rate.
"Calais is stuck in a global problem that nobody wants to deal with," said Philippe Mignonet, deputy mayor for security.
Last week, about 100 migrants stormed the well-guarded port, climbing over towering fences to rush security guards, an invasion that forced one ferry loading vehicles to temporarily pull up its ramp. Migrants regularly pelt freight trucks headed to the port with stones to slow them down so they can hop into the back, police say.
As summer vacations ended, some also tried to board cars of British holidaymakers returning from France — traffic jams making private cars easy targets. Scores of migrants can be seen crouching behind bushes or walking along the highway leading to the port. Competition for choice spots from which to jump on trucks has stiffened, triggering several nights of turf battle clashes.
Truckers have nicknamed migrants the "Taliban."
"They're attacking," said Gilles Debove of the Unite SGP Police FO union, who acts as a police spokesman. Increasingly, he said, migrants pretend to faint in the street at a red light or throw road signs in truckers' paths to slow them down.
Calais officials say the travelers are becoming a public danger and are ruining the image of the city and the port, Calais' economic lungs. Port chief Jean-Marc Puissesseau suspects some traffic is already rerouting to Dunkirk and the Channel Tunnel.
In the past, "there was a code, a certain way of behavior. Now, they don't respect anything," he said at the vast port, where 12 million tourists and 1.9 million trucks pass each year.
"We are going to counter-attack," Puissesseau said. "Because the behavior of migrants is completely new, we have to adapt ourselves."
Security will be increased, he said, refusing to elaborate. The port currently pays 15 million euros a year on security personnel to keep migrants out — money he thinks both Britain and the French government should help pay.
The police presence in Calais has been strengthened, including with dogs for night patrols.
But truck drivers remain wary. They must pay hefty fines in Britain if caught with migrants hiding in their cargo holds.
Dincer Ozdemir, a Turkish trucker, said 13 migrants were once caught in his truck and he had to pay a 150 euro fine. He was now carrying his textile cargo in a refrigerated truck because the walls are stronger.
"We're fed up with this," he said.
Tensions have simmered for years in Calais, seen as the gateway to a promised land with generous benefits for refugees. Officials on both sides of the Channel say that image of Britain is a "myth" perpetuated by smugglers.
City officials want Britain to help shoulder the financial burden since Calais is a transit stop, and to revise a 2003 accord that puts the onus for stopping migrants on France.
"We are in this position now because we've got the English border in Calais," said Mignonet, the deputy mayor. "We have a border to keep them (migrants) in our country."
Mayor Bouchart wants the border "transferred back to Dover" — a move that would put the migrant burden more squarely on Britain, he said.
Tensions are nearing a boiling point among some Calais residents as pro- and anti-migrant blocks form, feeding extremist sentiments, a reflection of the challenges faced around Europe as nationalist, anti-immigrant movements gain support amid economic woes.
"Kick them Out" read a banner an extreme-right rally Sunday in front of Calais City Hall.
"They come here and wipe their feet on our beautiful country," said Yvan Benedetti, who led an ultra-nationalist group banned last year.
To counter the rally, a group supporting migrants arranged a soccer match for them.
Tensions are mounting between police and right-wing thugs in the local population, said Debove, the police union official. "The rise of extremists scares me the most," he said.
In May, the city bulldozed makeshift migrant camps in the downtown area, forcing the travelers to relocate their wood-and-tarp tents to an industrial zone near the port. Conditions are deplorable, but hope endures. Only 36 kilometers in a 90-minute ferry ride separates the migrants from their dream.
Josef Faris, a 23-year-old Eritrean who wants to study accounting in Britain, took a boat from Libya to the Italian island of Lampedusa. He has spent months in Calais trying to sneak across the English Channel.
"I know that one day I'll do it," he said, "and after that I'll have all my dreams."
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