PARIS (Reuters) - Prosecutors in France are investigating a French man suspected of entering Mali illegally to set up a jihadist cell in the country, where Paris believes there is a risk of militants planning an attack on French soil.
The West African nation has become a security concern for Western governments worried its vast desert could turn into a training ground for al Qaeda-linked fighters.
French President Francois Hollande is pushing hard for military action by an African force against Islamist militants who have taken control of the north of the country.
The prosecutor’s office in Paris said on Wednesday the French national arrested in Mali had identified himself as Ibrahim Ouattaram, from the town of Aubervilliers, northeast of Paris.
French radio station RFI said he had been trying to get to the desert city of Timbuktu, which is in rebel hands.
Once an example of African democracy, Mali fell into chaos after a coup in March in the capital Bamako that toppled the president, leaving a power vacuum exploited by rebels for their takeover of the north.
A spokesman for Mali’s defense minister confirmed a French citizen of Malian origin had entered the country on November 2 under a false Senegalese passport and was later arrested by the army near the town of Mopti, northeast of Bamako.
“He’s someone questionable, that’s what alerted the authorities,” Nouhoum Togo told Reuters. “He is being pursued by the French justice system, an investigation is under way.”
A second man has also been detained, he said.
France, Mali’s former colonial ruler, fears al Qaeda’s north African arm, AQIM, is cementing its base in the West African state, creating a launch pad from which to target French political and economic interests at home and abroad.
French diplomatic sources said last month that a handful of French nationals have traveled to the Sahel region to train for Islamic jihad.
The French government is toughening up anti-terrorism laws and has presented a draft law that would allow police to arrest those believed to have been involved in terrorism-related activities outside France.
Reporting By Gerard Bon in Paris and Tiemoko Diallo in Bamako; Writing by Alexandria Sage; Editing by Pravin Char