PARIS (Reuters) - Police arrested 10 suspected Islamist militants in dawn raids across France on Wednesday after a shooting spree by an al Qaeda-inspired gunman prompted President Nicolas Sarkozy to order a security clampdown, just ahead of an April 22 election.
The DCRI domestic intelligence service, supported by elite police commandos, carried out arrests in the southern cities of Marseille and Valence, two smaller towns in the southwest, and in the northeastern town of Roubaix, a police source said.
Interior Minister Claude Gueant pledged there would be no respite in France’s pursuit of militants.
“The pressure on radical Islam and the threats it represents will not stop,” he said.
The raids, which followed Friday’s arrest of 19 suspects, came 13 days after police snipers shot dead 23-year-old gunman Mohamed Merah, who had killed three Jewish school children, a rabbi and three soldiers in a spate of attacks around Toulouse.
“Those arrested have a similar profile to Mohamed Merah,” a local police source said. “They are isolated individuals who are self-radicalized.”
He said the suspects were tracked on Islamist forums expressing extreme views and were preparing to travel to areas including Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Sahel belt of West Africa to wage jihad (holy war). Some of those arrested had already visited these areas, the source said.
Sarkozy, who faces an uphill task to win re-election in an April-May two-round vote, has vowed to root out any form of militancy following Merah’s killing spree.
Television channels showed images of the early morning raids, with police taking suspects away handcuffed and with their faces covered. Officials also confiscated bags.
Some French media had been tipped off about the raids and police did not cordon off the areas ensuring mass coverage.
The Toulouse killings lifted domestic security up the political agenda 2-1/2 weeks before the April 22 first-round vote and may have improved Sarkozy’s odds against Socialist Francois Hollande, who he trails in polls for the May 6 runoff.
Sarkozy, a former hardline interior minister, has been accused by some opponents of capitalizing on the Islamist threat for electoral purposes even though only 20 percent of voters consider it their main concern, surveys show.
Centrist election candidate Francois Bayrou accused the government of using the situation for its own political ends.
“It’s fine that the state fulfills its responsibility by controlling and banning gatherings or suspected groups,” he told i-Tele television. “But I find it surprising that it takes place in front of journalists who have been asked to come.”
Speaking on RTL radio, Hollande declined to be drawn on whether he thought the raids were politically driven.
“If there are suspicions and risks, then they must be acted upon,” Hollande said. “But why do it after a terrorist act? I am not questioning what is being done, but maybe we could have done more before,” he said.
Thirteen of the 19 people arrested last Friday are alleged to have links to radical French Islamist group Forsane Alizza (Knights of Pride). They are being investigated on suspicion of terrorism, the Paris public prosecutor said on Tuesday.
Wednesday’s raids were not directly linked to either those arrests or the Merah attacks, the source said.
Additional Reporting By Nicolas Bertin; writing by John Irish; Editing by Ben Harding and Daniel Flynn