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PARIS: A busy railway hub in Paris suffered a near-total traffic shutdown on Tuesday after vandals triggered a crippling signal malfunction by setting cables on fire.

Traffic from Gare de l’Est, which serves routes to Germany and eastern France, and is a key local train commuter hub for the capital’s eastern outskirts, was cut for the entire day, except for a handful of local services, operator SNCF said.

Transport Minister Clement Beaune told reporters it was not certain whether operations could return to normal on Wednesday.

The fire broke out at a signals point in the small hours ahead of the morning rush hour, in what was first thought to be an accident but which subsequently turned out to be arson, it said.

“This was a fire started deliberately,“ a spokeswoman for SNCF told AFP.

There was no immediate indication as to who the perpetrators were or what their intention was in targeting a small but crucial piece of infrastructure.

Officials initially said that services could resume by mid-morning but that hope was quickly dashed.

– ‘Deliberate vandalism’ –

Beaune said 48 bundled cables had been destroyed, housing 600 individual electrical cables.

“It’s an act of deliberate vandalism,“ Anne-Marie Palmier, head of SNCF’s Paris region network, told reporters at the station.

The operator filed a criminal complaint with police.

Prosecutors in the eastern town of Meaux said they had launched a criminal investigation against persons unknown for deliberately causing damage and endangering the lives of others.

The fire was discovered near the regional station of Vaires, east of Paris, where 48 cables were damaged after their protective casing was forced open, she said.

A railway worker discovered the fire and called police at 4:30 am.

The cables’ function was to transmit data to signalling posts. “Safety conditions can no longer be guaranteed,“ Vaires said.

Dozens of network specialists were on site to repair the damage, Beaune said.

– Petrol traces –

Among the fast TGV trains cancelled were the services to the eastern French cities of Colmar, Nancy and Reims; to Frankfurt and Stuttgart in Germany; and to Luxembourg.

Some TGV departures, however, were diverted to the nearby Gare de Nord station, SNCF said.

Passengers unable to travel were invited to re-book their journeys or have their tickets reimbursed.

“I’m not sure I’ll be able to make it home today and I have to work tomorrow,“ said Sylvie Rousseau, 58, who lives in Nancy. “It’s going to be a bit stressful.”

Gautier Milewski, a 27-year-old bookseller, said he could see the bright side of the situation.

“It’s important not to let this spoil your day. It’s an adventure and I like adventures,“ he told AFP.

Beaune told reporters that what he called “a scandalous act of vandalism” should be punished “severely”.

The minister said investigators had found traces of petrol “at two key points” at the site of the fire.

The incident was “quite extraordinary, very serious”, he said.

Gare de l’Est is the fifth-busiest station of the French capital’s seven railway hubs, after Gare Saint-Lazare, Gare du Nord, Gare de Lyon and Gare Montparnasse.

Nearly 28 million people used Gare de l’Est last year, according to SNCF data. -AFP

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