French police arrest 20 suspected Islamists in dawn raids

The arrests came a day after the burial of al-Qaeda-inspired Mohamed Merah, who was shot dead by a police sniper on March 22 at the end of a 32-hour siege at his flat in Toulouse. (AFP)

French elite police arrested about20 people in dawn raids on suspected Islamist circles on Friday in several cities including Toulouse, where a gunman was shot dead by police last week after going on a killing spree, security sources said.

The arrests in Toulouse in the southwest, Nantes and Le Mans in western France, and in the Paris region, were carried out by mostly by DCRI domestic intelligence agency, with the national police’s elite RAID unit providing support in some cases, a source told AFP on condition of anonymity.

The raids, less than a month from a presidential election, come just over a week after police hunted down and killed Mohamed Merah.

The al-Qaeda-inspired gunman admitted during a siege of his apartment that he had shot dead three soldiers, three school children and a rabbi in three attacks in Toulouse and the surrounding region.

Another police source said, according to Reuters, the raids were not directly part of ongoing inquiries into the case of Merah, whose brother Abdelkader has been placed under official inquiry and is being held in custody on suspicion of complicity.

Barring Muslim preachers

On Thursday, France barred four Islamic preachers from entering the country after banning prominent preacher Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi and another Egyptian cleric who wanted to attend a Muslim conference in Paris.

Foreign Minister Alain Juppe and Interior Minister Claude Gueant said in a joint statement the four preachers “call for hate and violence ... and, in the current context, present a strong risk of upsetting public order.”

President Nicolas Sarkozy, who ordered a crackdown on radical Islamists after the Toulouse killings by an al Qaeda-inspired gunman last week, said on Monday that Qaradawi and Mahmoud al-Masri were not welcome in France.

The Union of French Islamic Organizations (UOIF), which invited the clerics to an April 6-9 conference, said it was surprised and hurt by the government’s “manifest determination to prolong a polemic ... based on total ignorance.”

Sarkozy and his UMP party, campaigning hard to win votes from the far-right National Front, have stressed divisive issues such as halal food and Islamic radicalism in their campaign for the two-round presidential election on April 22 and May 6.

The UOIF said the bans “risk deepening the feeling French Muslims have of being blacklisted and treated with prejudice”.

The four preachers - a Palestinian, an Egyptian and two Saudis - were due to take part in an annual conference in Paris hosted by the UOIF, which is close to the Muslim Brotherhood.

They are Ikrima al-Sabri, former Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories, Egyptian preacher Safwat al-Hijazi, Saudi self-help preacher Ayedh al-Qarni and Saudi imam and Koran reciter Abdallah Basfar.

The UOIF said none of them advocated violence.

The ministers regretted the UOIF had invited Swiss-born Tariq Ramadan, who teaches at Britain’s Oxford University, but they did not bar him. They said his views “are contrary to the republican spirit and do no service to French Muslims.”

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