Russian interference suspected after coffins draped with tricolour placed at Eiffel Tower

French police are investigating whether the placing of five full-sized coffins covered with the French tricolour at the Eiffel Tower at the weekend was another act of Russian interference.

Three men were formally put under investigation on Monday – the equivalent of being charged – in connection with the coffins, each of which was inscribed with “French soldiers in the Ukraine”.

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The inscription is believed to be a reference to the French president, Emmanuel Macron, raising the possibility of sending western troops to Ukraine, a suggestion Moscow has described as “dangerous”.

The incident also followed talks between French and Ukrainian defence ministers a week ago in which the possibility of France sending military instructors to Ukraine to train its forces was raised.

French detectives are investigating links between one of the suspects and the vandalism of the Holocaust memorial in Paris a week ago; 35 red hands were paintedon the monument, which honours individuals who saved Jews from persecution during the 1940-44 Nazi occupation of France.

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Graffiti depicting red handprints have been painted in the Rue Sainte-Croix de la Bretonnerie, in the Marais, Paris, near the Holocaust memorial which was also vandalised with the same images last week. Photograph: Antonin Utz/AFP/Getty Images

On Saturday, security cameras showed a white van with Bulgarian number plates stopping near the Eiffel Tower and two men removing the coffins from the vehicle.

The driver, a 34-year-old Bulgarian national, was subsequently arrested and told police he had been paid to transport the coffins to the French capital. He said he had arrived in Paris from Bulgaria the previous evening and met up with the two other suspects – a German and a Ukrainian – who had travelled to France separately. They were later arrested at a Paris coach terminal about to board a bus to Berlin.

All three claimed they had been paid to deposit the coffins and needed the money as they were unemployed. The driver and the German were also subject to an expulsion order from France, Le Parisien reported. The paper said police sources had confirmed one of the men involved in Saturday’s incident was being looked at in connection with the red hands graffiti.

Last week, detectives said they had identified three suspects in the memorial vandalism who had travelled to Paris from Bulgaria. They were also looking into whether there was a link to an incident last October when a Moldovan couple, arrested after 250 Stars of David were stencilled on several walls in the French capital, told police they had been commissioned by a pro-Russian former politician from their home country.

A memo from the French domestic intelligence service, the DGSE, suggested the operation was coordinated by the FSB Russian intelligence agency, Le Monde reported.

The Guardian

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