PARIS — A hammer-wielding Malian immigrant died Tuesday after French police shot him twice with a Taser stun gun during a scuffle, authorities said, reviving controversy over the weapon's safety.
"From initial reports it seems that, faced with the aggression and violence of this person, police officers were obliged to use an electric charge pistol," Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux told reporters.
Earlier, after the incident in the Paris suburb of Colombes, a police spokesman said: "During his arrest, a Taser was used twice. Following the intervention, the person died of a cause that remains to be determined."
Police use of the Taser to subdue suspects has been controversial in France, with rights groups alleging that it can be deadly if misused while the company that produces the weapon insists it is safe.
Following Tuesday's death, left-wing opposition lawmakers demanded a new nationwide inquiry into the use of the Taser.
The director of the Taser's French subsidiary, Antoine di Zazzo, told AFP: "Only this man's autopsy will be able to say whether our pistol is responsible for his death. To date, worldwide, a Taser has never killed anyone."
While it is true the company has so far been successful in defending the safety of its device in court cases, Taser shots have coincided with deaths in cases under investigation in Canada, Australia and the United States.
And in Britain, the firm has been barred from supplying Tasers to police after it was found to have wrongly sold an unlicensed new version of the gun to a regional police force, which used it in a fatal stand-off with a gunman.
Trouble broke out just after midnight Monday when police were called to an argument between the 38-year-old Malian, who was allegedly staying in France illegally, and a friend who had provided him with a place to stay.
When officers attempted to check his identity papers the man "flipped out" and seized a hammer to beat them back, injuring four of the eight police who pursued him through the apartment block, a police source said.
The victim's room-mate, Edouard Torval, confirmed in an interview on Europe 1 radio that the victim had been "out of control" and had fought police.
Their neighbour, who gave his name as Abdelmalek, told AFP that he counted three Taser shots in all.
"There were about 10 police in all," he said. "The guy started shouting after the first shot. By the second he was on the ground with his leg stamping and after the third shot -- he was already down -- there was no more noise.
"The police then carried him away, stretched out, to the lift. He was like a sack of potatoes," he added.
Police shot the heavily overweight fugitive twice with Tasers, which fire a pair of charged darts into a target to stun him with 50,000 volts, but in this case appear to have had no visible effect, a police source said.
The suspect was also tear-gassed and struck with a baton, the source added.
Officers eventually managed to arrest him and were bringing him out of the building in the block's elevator when he collapsed. Paramedics were already on the scene to treat injured police but could not revive him.
A French human rights group, RAID-H, called for an immediate moratorium on the use of the Taser pending the results of the investigation and demanded to know why the suspect was shot twice.
"Were the police in a situation of legitimate self-defence when the Taser was fired? Did the video camera that is supposed to go into action in the case of a long-range shot activate and will footage be made public?" it asked.
But a police union insisted the officers had acted within their rights.
"Our colleagues, victims of the relentless aggression of this excessively violent individual, used the Taser under the most strict rules of legitimate self defence," the Alliance union said in a statement.
The union paid tribute to the four officers whom it said were hurt in the incident and argued that if officers were not allowed to use the "non-lethal" Taser they would be forced to resort more often to deadly firearms.
Local prosecutors have ordered an inquiry to determine the cause of death.
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