The authorities appealed for calm in the face of the streak of urban unrest in France.

Troublemakers on Friday night fired bullets into a vandalised bus, set a warehouse ablaze, burned 44 cars in a car park in Suresnes, just west of Paris, and stoned rescuers helping someone who had fallen ill and torched the ambulance, police said.

Incidents, mainly fires, were reported in the northern city of Lille, in Toulouse, in the southwest, Rouen, in the west and elsewhere - the second night that the unrest spread beyond metropolitan Paris.

Arrests

An incendiary device was tossed at the wall of a synagogue in Pierrefitte, northwest of Paris, where electricity went out after a burning car damaged an electrical pole.

Police who clashed with the youth
arrested about 170 rioters

"This is dreadful, unfortunate. Who did this? Against whom?" said Naima Mouis, 43, a hospital worker in Suresnes looking at the hulk of her burned-out car.

An Interior Ministry operations centre tracking the destruction reported 355 vehicles burned around France - one-third outside the Paris region.

The figure - not definitive - marked a drop from the more than 500 vehicles set ablaze 24 hours earlier. The authorities arrested more than 200 people overnight - an unprecedented sweep since the unrest began.

A full picture of the night's violence was not expected until later on Saturday.

Mayors meet

Officials in the Yvelines region, west of Paris, said 60 vehicles were torched and a nursery school was all but burned to the ground.

About 30 mayors from the Seine-Saint-Denis region where the unrest began on 27 October met on Friday to issue a joint appeal for calm.

Claude Pernes, mayor of Rosny-sous-Bois, denounced a "veritable guerrilla situation, urban insurrection".

Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin oversaw a Cabinet meeting on Saturday to evaluate the situation.

Protest

Buildings such as a nursery and
carpet store were torched

On Saturday morning, more than 1000 people took part in a silent march in one of the worst-hit suburbs, Aulnay-sous-Bois, filing past burned-out cars to demand calm. One banner read: "No to violence."

Car torchings have become a daily fact in France's tough suburbs, with about 100 each night.

The Interior Ministry operations centre reported 754 vehicles burned throughout France from Friday night to Saturday morning, with three quarters of them in the Paris

Discontent

The violence - sparked after the 27 October accidental electrocution of two teenagers who believed police were chasing them in Seine-Saint-Denis - has laid bare discontent simmering in France's poor suburbs ringing big cities.

Those areas are home to large populations of African immigrants and their children living in low-income housing projects marked by high unemployment, crime and despair.

A police officer at the operations centre said bullets were fired into a vandalised bus in Sarcelles, north of Paris.

Jacques Chirac's calls for calm
remain unheeded  

Two days ago, bullets were fired four times, signalling a potentially dangerous turn of events. The officer, not authorised to speak publicly, asked not to be named.

The persistence of the violence prompted the American and Russian governments to advise citizens visiting Paris to steer clear of the suburbs, where authorities were struggling to gain control of the worst rioting in at least a decade.

An attack this week on a woman bus passenger highlighted the savage nature of some of the violence.

The woman, in her 50s and on crutches, was doused with an inflammable liquid and set alight after passengers were forced to leave the bus, blocked by burning objects on the road, judicial officials said.

Late on Friday in Meaux, east of Paris, youths prevented firefighters from evacuating a sick person from an apartment in a housing project, pelting them with stones and torching the awaiting ambulance, the Interior Ministry officer said.

Firefighters battled a furious blaze at a carpet warehouse in Aubervilliers, on the northern edge of Paris.

"I'm not able to sleep at night because you never know when a fire might break out," said Mammed Chukri, 36, a Kurdish immigrant from northern Iraq living near the warehouse.

"I have three children and I live in a five-storey building. If a fire hit, what would I do?"

State symbols targeted

A national police spokesman, Patrick Hamon, said there appeared to be no coordination between gangs in the riot-hit suburbs.

He said, however, that neighbourhood youths were communicating among themselves using mobile phone text messaging or emails to arrange meeting points and alert one another to police.
 

"I'm not able to sleep at night because you never know when a fire might break out" 

Mammed Chukri,
Kurdish immigrant 

More than 1200 vehicles have been torched since the unrest began, LCI television reported.

Vandals have set fire to schools, post offices and other symbols of the state.

France's Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, said it was concerned that foreign media coverage was exaggerating the situation.

"I don't have the feeling that foreign tourists in Paris are in any way placed in danger by these events," spokesman Jean-Baptiste Mattei told reporters, adding that officials were "sometimes a bit surprised" by foreign coverage.

Calls for calm

The violence has alarmed the government of President Jacques Chirac, whose calls for calm have gone unheeded.

"This is the first time [suburban violence] has lasted so long, and the government appears taken aback at the magnitude," said Pascal Perrineau, director of the Centre for Study of French Political Life.
 
Abderrhamane Bouhout, head of the Bilal mosque in Clichy-sous-Bois, where the youths died, said he had enlisted 50 youngsters to roam housing projects and persuade youths to stay out of trouble.

Siyakah Traore, the brother of 15-year-old Bouna Traore who was one of the two teens electrocuted, on Friday called for protesters to "calm down and stop ransacking everything".

"This is not how we are going to have our voices heard," he said on RTL radio.