France arrests four suspected of sending militants to Syria

PARIS (Reuters) - French police have arrested four men suspected of belonging to a militant cell channelling fighters to Syria to join Islamist rebel groups battling President Bashar al-Assad’s government, police sources said on Friday.

The suspects, aged between 22 and 35, were arrested in the Paris suburb of Vitry-sur-Seine by the DCRI internal security service following an investigation that started in mid-2012.

One 24-year-old man, suspected of organizing journeys to Syria, was in touch with several “fixers” who facilitated travel between Turkey and Syria, while another previously fought with an Islamist group in Syria, the sources said.

A court ordered the men to be jailed temporarily pending further questioning.

Interior Minister Manuel Valls said in September that more than 100 French people had traveled to Syria to fight with rebels, though he said it was hard to determine whether they had joined the Free Syrian Army or hardline Islamist groups, some of which are linked to al Qaeda.

Highlighting legal obstacles to detaining Syrian rebel fighters on their return to France, Valls said at the time: “The difficulty is that they are going to fight a regime that we oppose ourselves. Some are fighting with official opposition groups. Others end up with jihadist groups that are listed as terrorist organizations.”

The arrests were the latest in a series in France since the start of Syria’s 2-1/2-year-old civil war. Several prospective fighters have been charged with conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism.

Reporting by Gerard Bon and Nicolas Bertin; Writing by Nicholas Vinocur; Editing by Mark Trevelyan