PARIS (Reuters) - French police arrested 12 people on Tuesday in early morning swoops the interior minister said were directly linked to a campaign to counter an elevated terrorism threat in Europe.
France is on high alert after seven hostages, including five French citizens, were kidnapped by the North African wing of al Qaeda last month, and approval by the Senate of a bill to ban full-face veils. The hostages are still being held.
The U.S. State Department on Sunday issued a warning to Americans to exercise caution while in Europe. Also on Sunday, Britain raised its terrorism threat level to high from general for those traveling to Germany and France.
“Yes there is a terrorist threat at the moment in Europe. It must be neither overestimated nor underestimated,” Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux told France’s National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, after the raids had taken place.
“Just this morning, police operations were launched in Marseille and Bordeaux which led to arrests directly linked to the anti-terrorist campaign,” said Hortefeux, who added that he had spoken among others to U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano as recently as Monday night.
“On such a sensitive, difficult issue, the French government is naturally working hand in hand with our partners, our allies and even further afield,” the minister said.
As further information emerged from police sources, the number of arrested rose to 12, 11 men and one woman, and many of them were as much suspected of links to local gangster activity in Marseille as Islamic militant networks.
All 12 are still being held.
In one operation focused on a network supplying false papers for jihadists returning from Afghanistan, police arrested two men in the Mediterranean port of Marseille and a third in the city of Bordeaux in southwest France, police sources said.
The three were arrested for checks after their details were found on a man arrested in the Italian city of Naples and suspected of being connected to al Qaeda militants, they said.
In another operation, nine people were arrested on suspicion of involvement in arms and explosives trafficking, they said. Those arrests took place in a region around Marseille.
“They’re not hardcore. If they’re moving in Islamic circles, they’re second-tier,” said one police source.
In early September, Italian anti-terrorist police arrested a Frenchman suspected of belonging to al Qaeda and capable of securing explosives, Italian sources said on Sunday.
According to Italian police, the man arrested in Naples last month was part of a group that had been in Afghanistan and was in the process of returning to Europe.
He arrived in Rome in the first half of August having travelled overland from Turkey. He went to Naples toward the end of the month and was arrested a few days later. French police issued a warrant for his arrest on Sept 3, the day before he was arrested in Naples.
Hortefeux said he would take stock of the situation on Thursday with European Union counterparts meeting in Luxembourg.
French authorities said last month they had received a tip-off that a suicide bomber was preparing an attack on the Paris metro system and Western intelligence sources said they had uncovered plans for a coordinated attack on European cities.
France’s threat level remains at red, the second-highest level. Hortefeux told reporters late on Sunday: “We shouldn’t be in denial.”
The kidnapping in Niger last month of seven employees of French companies Areva and Vinci, including five French citizens, by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, highlighted tensions in the region.
Mali’s president last week called for regional cooperation to fight AQIM, but said support from France, the region’s main former colonial power, should remain material.
France, where the five-million-strong Muslim community is Europe’s largest, last month cleared a final legislative hurdle to becoming the first European country to ban a full-scale veil which an estimated 2,000 Muslim women actually wear, when the Senate approved the ban.
The ban on the head-to-toe garment that leaves only the eyes uncovered still has to be vetted by the Constitutional Council, France’s highest constitutional authority.
With reporting by Nicolas Bertin, Laure Bretton in Paris, Jean-Francois Rosnoblet in Marseille, Ilaria Polleschi in Milan