France faces imminent terror threat: officials

20th September 2010, Comments 0 comments

France is at immediate risk of a major terror attack by Islamist radicals and has further reinforced already urgent security measures since last week, officials said Monday.

Asked about reports that an attack might be imminent, Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said: "The threat is real, we have stepped up our vigilance."

Separately, a source close to the ministry confirmed that police are probing reports that a female suicide bomber may be preparing a strike in Paris, but added: "That's not necessarily the most worrying thing."

Instead, he explained, Paris is concerned with intelligence received from an allied foreign spy agency that Al-Qaeda's North African branch, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), was planning an "imminent" attack in France.

"It's a threat which we think might target transportation," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity and without giving further details except that the warning was received at 5:00 am (0300 GMT) on Thursday last week.

The interior ministry played down the specific risk to transport, insisting that the threat was "against totally undefined targets."

Meanwhile, according to a police source, authorities have learned that two dormant Islamist networks in France have been revived to receive and host groups of Jihadi radicals returning from Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Separately, officials from Paris's Grand Mosque confirmed that their rector, Dalil Boubakeur, had been placed under police protection and provided with an escort as he moves about the city.

Boubakeur is a moderate figure who has worked with France's government on issues of Muslim integration and has been threated by radicals in the past.

On Tuesday, hundreds of tourists were moved away from the Eiffel Tower as it was briefly evacuated following a hoax bomb threat.

France's national terror warning plan, known as "Vigipirate", was already at alert level "reinforced red" -- one step down from the highest level, scarlet, which would represent a precise and imminent threat.

The warnings were the latest in a series given over the past 10 days since the head of France's DCRI domestic intelligence agency, Bernard Squarcini, said France had never faced a greater "terrorist threat."

They come at a time when France has been the target of violent threats on Jihadi websites, including from known armed militant leaders, over its ban on the full-face Muslim veil and its overseas military operations.

Senators voted last week to pass the ban on the burqa and the niqab and it will go into effect in around six months if approved by constitutional judges.

Before the law was voted, Al-Qaeda's Egyptian number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, released an audio tape urging Muslim women to resist the ban.

French troops, meanwhile, are fighting Islamic militants in both Afghanistan -- where they are part of the NATO mission -- and northwest Africa, where in July they took part in a commando raid against a AQIM base.

The July 22 strike, carried out alongside Mauritanian troops operating in northern Mali, left seven militants dead, but failed to find a French hostage, 78-year-old aid worker Michel Germaneau, who is thought to be dead.

AQIM claimed responsibility for killing Germaneau and vowed to avenge the raid. The group is now the prime suspect in last week's kidnap in Niger of seven foreign nationals, five of them French.

The group is thought to have taken its captives, including a French married couple, to Mali. France has sent an 80-strong military intelligence detachment to Bamako to hunt down the gang, officials said Monday.

France has Europe's largest Islamic population, with around five million Muslims of mainly north African descent, but since September 11, 2001 has been spared the kind of large scale attacks that hit London and Madrid.

The last major Islamist bomb attack in Paris dates back to the summer of 1995, when eight were killed and 200 wounded in attacks on Metro trains.

© 2010 AFP

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