MARSEILLE, France (Reuters) - The French prime minister said on Tuesday he would step up policing in Marseille to stem a spate of killings by drug gangsters that is tainting the image of the country's second-largest city.
Jean-Marc Ayrault, flanked by his interior and justice ministers, said he would send in 130 extra riot police and 24 investigative officers this week after two more murders in recent days, one in front of a busy restaurant.
He stopped short of more drastic measures, such as sending in troops - an idea floated by local politicians to crack down on drug dealers and AK-47-toting gangsters in the suburbs of the Mediterranean city, home to Europe's fifth-largest port.
Thirteen people have been murdered in the Marseille region so far this year, after a toll of 24 in 2012. Most victims were involved in drug trafficking and shot by rival gang members.
Tackling crime and insecurity in France's poorer neighborhoods has long been a headache for the ruling Socialists, who the conservative opposition accuses of being soft on crime.
In the most recent killings in Marseille, an 18-year-old was stabbed in the chest on Sunday during a fight outside a nightclub and a 25-year-old man was shot on Monday in his car outside a restaurant by two men on a motorbike.
Interior Minister Manuel Valls has taken a tough stance that has made him popular with the public - even if critics call him right-wing - and has been to the southern city twice in the past week.
Marseille, France's second-biggest city by population and home to a large immigrant population from North Africa, is celebrating its year as European Capital of Culture, but in recent years has made more headlines as a violent city than as a tourist venue.
Last September, Ayrault's government unveiled a plan to stem the violence. About 230 extra policemen were deployed then, and the northern and southern ends of the city - home to half of its 860,000 residents - were defined as "priority security zones".
Valls noted last week that delinquency in Marseille was down in the first half of the year compared with the same period a year ago, but police unions said there was no reason to rejoice.
"The reality is that people are filing less complaints because they feel it won't change anything," said Jean-Marie Allemand, of union Alliance Police Nationale.
(Reporting by Jean-Francois Rosnoblet; Writing by Natalie Huet; Editing by Pravin Char)