PARIS (Reuters) - France is on heightened alert for possible terrorist attacks after receiving a tip-off that a female suicide bomber was planning to attack the transport system, a police source said on Monday.
Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said France was facing a real terrorism threat as it faces a backlash from al Qaeda militants in North Africa and fears grow of an attack from home-grown cells within its borders.
A police source told Reuters the authorities had been alerted from Algeria that there was a possible threat from a female suicide bomber to the Paris metro system.
Citing unidentified security sources, French radio station RTL reported earlier in the day that the authorities had been informed of the possible bomber last Wednesday.
A spokesman for the public prosecutor said an investigation to determine the truth of the information was under way.
France has not suffered a major attack since 1995 when the Algerian Armed Islamic Group killed eight people and wounded dozens bombing a Paris metro station.
“The terrorism threat is real and as of today we have enhanced our vigilance,” Hortefeux told reporters without giving details of specific threats.
Authorities have warned an attack was increasingly possible since a botched attempt in Mali to rescue a Frenchman being held hostage by al Qaeda’s North African wing (AQIM) in July.
However, France’s overall alert level remains unchanged at “red,” the second highest level.
Opposition MPs have suggested the government may be using the “terror card” to distract from a political financing scandal embroiling the labor minister and the international uproar on the repatriation of Roma from France.
“I hope there is not an ounce of manipulation in this,” said Francois Bayrou, the centrist presidential candidate in 2007.
The French military presence in Afghanistan and the parliament adopting a ban on full Islamic veils are also issues of contention.
“On Salafist websites, close to al Qaeda, there have been more calls against France and communication has been intercepted from (al Qaeda‘s) Abu Yahya al-Libi to AQIM to attack France as a priority,” Roland Jacquard of the International Terrorism Observatory in Paris told Reuters Television.
Five French nationals were kidnapped last week in Niger. AQIM is thought to be behind the attack. AQIM warned France it would avenge its fighters killed in a raid by French troops in the Sahara desert.
The head of France’s counter intelligence service, Bernard Squarcini, has appeared in several interviews recently evoking the heightened alert, telling Le Monde on Sunday: “Carrying out an attack on our territory is among their objectives.”
The authorities have visibly beefed up police and military patrolling landmarks, including the Eiffel Tower, where 2,000 people last week were evacuated after a hoax bomb threat.
Additional reporting by Thierry Leveque and Yann Tessier; Editing by Janet Lawrence