PARIS (Reuters) - Police commandos arrested 19 suspected Islamic militants in raids on Friday in several French cities including Toulouse, where seven people were killed by an al Qaeda-inspired gunman this month.
President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose firm handling of the response to the shooting spree may have improved his odds in an election race he has lagged in, said more raids would follow to get rid of “people who have no business in the country”.
Interior Minister Claude Gueant said those arrested had paramilitary-type training although he did not say if they were planning an actual attack.
“These are people who...claimed they were acting for an extremely violent, jihadist and combat ideology,” Gueant told reporters after meeting Muslim associations in Paris.
Television channels showed images of the early morning raids, with agents from the RAID police commando unit and anti-terrorist specialists bashing down doors, smashing windows, and taking suspects away handcuffed and with their faces covered.
Five rifles, three Kalashnikovs, four handguns and a bullet-proof vest were seized in the operation, Gueant said.
A police source said about 20 people had been arrested in Toulouse in the southwest, Nantes in western France and also in the Paris region and the southeast. Sarkozy put the number of arrests at 19.
The suspects can be held for 96 hours under anti-terrorist laws. The daily Le Monde said the arrest order came under an investigation underway in Paris since March 8.
The police source said the operation was not directly related to Mohamed Merah’s killing spree in Toulouse, although Sarkozy ordered a crackdown on radical Islamists following that.
Merah was killed by police snipers last week after shooting dead three Jewish school children, a rabbi and three soldiers in attacks around Toulouse, turning internal security into a bigger campaign issue ahead of the presidential election.
Polls showed that more than 70 percent of voters approved of Sarkozy’s handling of the incident, reducing his chief rival, Socialist frontrunner Francois Hollande, to the role of bystander before the two-round election on April 22 and May 6.
Sarkozy’s ratings have inched up — he now stands 1-2 points ahead of Hollande in some polls for the first round but remains 8 points behind his rival in surveys for the run-off.
Gueant dismissed talk that the raids had been carried out in response to suggestions that the intelligence services had failed to monitor and track down Merah quickly enough.
The police source said several of those arrested were believed to be close to the banned radical Islamist group Forsane Alizza (Knights of Pride). Gueant said the group’s leader, Mohammed Achamlane, had been arrested in Nantes.
Founded in 2010, Forsane Alizza came to prominence after calling that year for a boycott of McDonald’s in the central city of Limoges, accusing the U.S. fast food chain of serving Israel.
Achamlane told the daily Liberation in January the group could not exclude launching an armed struggle “if Islamophobia continues to intensify day by day”.
Before the Toulouse attacks, the group was known for provocative demonstrations, such as protests against a French ban on worshippers praying in the streets and a ban on full-face veils.
Gueant banned the group in February, accusing it of preparing its supporters for armed struggle.
Gilles Kepel, political scientist and specialist in Islam, said the group operated more on the internet - preaching extreme views and intimidating but never actually turning to violence.
“It’s a big show, but obviously spreading ideas that can cause problems,” he said.
France’s 5 million strong Muslim minority is the largest in Europe but only a portion - about 10 percent, or the same proportion as among Catholics - are practicing, according to Muslim associations.
Writing by Brian Love and John Irish; Editing by Angus Macswan