( LatWp ) - Gangs of youths set cars ablaze and clashed with riot police Monday as street violence spread to at least six towns in the northern Paris suburbs, a night after two teen-agers were killed when their motorbike collided with a police cruiser, according to police.
Police and French officials urged calm, fearing that the violence in the troubled public housing projects of the suburbs could ignite a wave of arson and attacks similar to the riots that erupted two years ago.
Relatives of the victims and some residents said the police fled their damaged vehicle and did not stop to assist the youths after their mini-motorbike smashed into a police car early Sunday evening in Villiers-le-Bel, north of Paris.
Police said that the two teen-agers, identified as Moushin, 15, and Larami, 16, were traveling at high speed and were not wearing helmets, and that their motorcycle had no license.
"I call on everyone to calm down and let the justice system decide who was responsible," President Nicolas Sarkozy said during an official visit to Beijing.
Sarkozy, who was the top French law enforcement official two years ago when rioters burned thousands of vehicles and torched hundreds of buildings across France, was blamed at the time for inciting the spread of violence with callous remarks directed at youths involved in the rampages.
The swift and violent reaction to the deaths Sunday night demonstrated that frustration continues to build within the city's suburbs, where large populations of immigrants and their first-generation French children suffer from high rates of unemployment, poor living conditions and widespread distrust of French officials, especially police.
On Monday night, youths in Villiers-le-Bel hurled Molotov cocktails and fireworks at police, who responded with rubber-coated bullets and tear gas, according to news reports and police. Eight police officers reportedly were injured.
Youths also set cars ablaze and attacked buildings in at least six towns just north of Paris, police said.
Within hours of the deaths on Sunday night, angry youths set ablaze a police station, a McDonald's restaurant, two garages, a gasoline pump and several shops, and ransacked a railway station in Villiers-le-Bel and a neighboring community, according to police. More than two dozen cars were torched, police said.
At least 21 police officers and firefighters were injured, including the town's police chief, who was hit in the face after he attempted to negotiate with rioters, according to police.
State prosecutor Marie-Therese de Givry on Monday described the incident as a "traffic accident" and told LCI television that the preliminary investigation indicated that the youths had turned into the path of the police car.
"That they say it was an accident, when they ran away - ran away, I say - that's unacceptable for those who represent the law," Slimane Erraji, an uncle of one of the victims, told LCI. A spokesman for the inspector general of the national police said the issue of whether police followed proper procedures at the scene of the incident "requires further investigation."
The police union Alliance offered condolences to the families of the two victims but said it was "unacceptable for a gang of delinquents to use this tragedy as a excuse to set the town on fire."
Francois Hollande, who heads the opposition Socialist Party, said the violence demonstrated the "deep social and political crisis" of France's poorest suburbs and accused Sarkozy's government of failing to live up to promises to improve conditions in the suburbs.