PARIS (Reuters) - Thirteen people linked to a radical French Islamist group arrested last week are being put under investigation on suspicion of terrorism, the Paris public prosecutor said on Tuesday.
Those under inquiry were among 19 arrested in swoops across several cities on March 30, a week after police killed Mohamed Merah, an al Qaeda-inspired gunman who shot dead seven people, including three Jewish children, in three separate attacks.
The killings have turned internal security into a bigger election issue ahead of the April 22 opening round and may have improved President Nicolas Sarkozy’s chances in a race in which he trails in polls behind Socialist rival Francois Hollande.
Prosecutor Francois Molins said those placed under investigation were linked to Forsane Alizza (Knights of Pride), an outlawed group that came to prominence in 2010 after burning the penal code and calling for a boycott of a McDonald’s outlet, accusing the U.S. fast food chain of serving Israel.
Forsane Alizza’s leader, Mohamed Achamlane, was among those put under investigation after raids in which police found about 20 firearms, including Kalashnikov assault rifles, and documentation on how to build explosives.
“All of the suspects confirmed Achamlane’s role as animator, coordinator and emir and his persistent interest in getting weapons,” Molins said.
Nine suspects will be held in custody during the inquiry, Molins told a news conference, adding that the suspects had at one time discussed kidnapping a Jewish judge in the city of Lyon and a member of the Jewish Defence League.
Before the Merah attacks, the group was known for provocative demonstrations, such as protests against a French ban on worshippers praying in streets. It preached on the Internet, but never turned to violence.
The prosecutor said the group had called for Islamic law to be adopted in France and for Muslims to prepare civil war. In a video in December it threatened to go to war against France if it did not pull its troops from Muslim countries.
Achamlane has denied any terrorist intention, his lawyer said over the weekend.
The prosecutor said there was no link between the Forsane Alizza raid and the Merah affair.
The operation was brought forward by events in Toulouse and because the group appeared to be stepping up training, was actively seeking weapons and holding regular meetings over the Internet suggesting they could have acted imminently, he said.
Sarkozy has been accused by some opponents of capitalizing on the Islamist threat and security issues for electoral purposes even though surveys show only 20 percent of voters consider it their main concern compared to economic issues.
A union representing judicial investigators slammed the conservative leader accusing him of exploiting events in the framework of the election campaign.
“We will not accept this political hijacking,” the union said. “He (Sarkozy) announced the results of the raids on the radio to gain from it and promised new raids without any legitimacy to do so.”
Polls, however, show that more than 70 percent of voters approved of Sarkozy’s handling of the incident, with his ratings inching up since the Merah affair, although he would still lose to Socialist Francois Hollande on the May 6 runoff.
Despite the prosecutor’s assertion that they were separate, Sarkozy drew a link between the two investigations during a television interview on Tuesday in which he vowed to root out any form of militancy following Merah’s killing spree.
“We’ve decided it’s zero tolerance,” he said on Canal+ TV.
Additional reporting by Brian Love; Editing by Alison Williams