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Fire destroys French migrant camp, leaving hundreds homeless

GRANDE SYNTHE, France (Reuters) - A fire has destroyed most of a migrant camp in northern France after fighting between rival groups injured five people, leaving officials scrambling on Tuesday to rehouse around 1,700 people.

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The Grande Synthe camp of tightly-packed wooden cabins, set up just over a year ago, was 70 percent destroyed by the blaze on Monday night after clashes between Iraqi Kurds and Afghans, Michel Lalande, a top regional official, told Reuters.

The Kurds originally formed a majority, but the population of the camp, near Dunkirk on the Channel coast, has swelled with the arrival of many Afghans.

“Yesterday, at 5 or 6 in the evening, the fight started between Afghans and the Kurdish. The Afghans were few, but they wanted to kill because they all had knives and other things,” said a 21-year-old Iraqi migrant, who gave his name only as Mohamed.

Grande Synthe was home to one of the largest groups of migrants on the French coast seeking to reach Britain since the sprawling “Jungle” shanty town outside the nearby port of Calais was shut down last October.

Francois Guennoc, vice-president of humanitarian group Auberge des Migrants, blamed tensions in the camp on its over-population. “Since the closure of Calais, the population had risen from about 850 people to 1,700 in recent days,” he told France Inter radio.

Last week, some camp residents tried to block the nearby highway with tree trunks and branches in an attempt to stop traffic and clamber onto trucks in the hope of reaching Britain.

Sights like these in recent years to some extent drove Britons to vote for a divorce from Europe last summer.

The large influx into Europe of migrants fleeing poverty and war elsewhere is also a hot button issue in France, where the far-right anti-immigration leader Marine Le Pen is a frontrunner in the presidential election less than two weeks away.

Le Pen repeated on Tuesday that she would close migrant camps and France’s borders, also drastically cutting migration should she be elected.

“This chaos has to end,” she said in a statement. Opinion polls show Le Pen tied with centrist Emmanuel Macron in the first round on April 23, then losing to him in the run-off of the two top scoring candidates on May 7.

Riot police intervened to stop the clashes, but five migrants were hurt in knife fights, regional authorities said. Another migrant was in serious condition after being knocked over by a vehicle on a nearby motorway.

Sixty firefighters fought the blaze but by Tuesday, much of the camp was reduced to heaps of smoking debris.

Lalande said it was unlikely that the camp, set up by medical aid charity Medecins Sans Frontieres, could be rebuilt.

Authorities were working to find alternative accommodation for the migrants. Around 500 were given shelter in three municipal gymnasiums and the government said it would speed up admission to reception centers for migrants wanting to apply for asylum in France.

Reporting by Pierre Savary, Flavien Bellouti and Pascal Rossignol; Writing Sarah White and Adrian Croft; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Tom Heneghan