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Corsicans fear violence will intensify

The killing of Corsica's top official was the strongest blow yet to France's government on the Mediterranean island, and people feared Saturday that the violence would only intensify.

No group has claimed responsibility for Friday's shooting of Claude Erignac, the first regional prefect to be killed in Corsica, but suspicion fell on separatists, who have waged a 23-year battle for greater autonomy. In Paris, two influential newspapers described the killing as an apparent "declaration of war."Erignac, 60, was shot four times in the head as he walked to a classical music concert in Ajaccio. Two gunmen fled on motorcycles.

Two suspects were being held for questioning, sources close to the investigation said Saturday. Their identities were not released.

Residents of Ajaccio, Corsica's de facto capital, began filing past the prefecture late Saturday. Many left wreaths and signed condolence books next to the gates.

"Citizens, wake up!" one message said. Another read: "By killing our prefect, they've tried to kill the Corsican soul."

Until now, France could afford to consider the separatists on its Mediterranean island a bearable irritant. Their hallmark was bombings that targeted strategic sites without shedding blood.

If Erignac's killing was ordered by separatists, it would pose a clear challenge to France's highly centralized government barely a month away from March 15 regional elections.