France on terror alert
As part of a safety measure, shoppers at Printemps store in Paris are searched before being allowed into the department store.PARIS – Shoppers were being searched Wednesday before being allowed into one of Paris's top department stores as France moved into its hectic Christmas shopping period on terror alert.
The searches at the Printemps store were aimed at protecting customers after an unknown group on Tuesday placed five sticks of dynamite, without a detonator, in a toilet in the men's clothing section, a store spokesman said.
The group calling itself the Afghan Revolutionary Front said it had planted the explosives in the store on Boulevard Haussmann and threatened more attacks unless Paris pulls its 2,600 troops out of Afghanistan by the end of February.
The dynamite was made safe by police after they had evacuated the store and closed off surrounding streets.
Experts cast doubt on the notion that the warning, which came in a letter sent to AFP, could have come from an Islamic group such as the Taliban or Al-Qaeda, which have previously threatened France.
But the government took the threat seriously, with President Nicolas Sarkozy calling for "vigilance because unfortunately anything can happen" and his prime minister saying there was a "strong terrorist threat to France".
Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie summoned top police and intelligence officials to meet Wednesday with representatives of major department stores and transport and airport officials to review security.
She said that police reinforcements would be deployed across the country following the discovery of the dynamite.
"I have decided to reinforce security arrangements in Paris and major provincial cities," she told the French Senate on Tuesday. "It is our role to be constantly vigilant, whatever the circumstances."
Defence Minister Herve Morin said that Islamist militants were not the prime suspects in the dynamite incident, which forced police to evacuate the store and close surrounding streets for several hours.
"It's obvious that the phraseology, the dialectic, is not the dialectic of Islamist terror movements," Morin told RTL radio on Wednesday.
The last major militant attacks on French soil were in 1995 and 1996, when eight people were killed and some 200 injured in a wave of strikes on the Paris metro and tourist sites by Algerian Islamists.
Boulevard Haussmann was also targeted in 1985 and 1986 during attacks on Paris department stores, many of them claimed by Lebanese Hezbollah militants, which left 13 dead and 303 injured.
French police arrested seven alleged Islamist radicals in Paris on Tuesday, but officials stressed this was not linked to the dynamite find.
The so-called Afghan Revolutionary Front linked its warning to the French deployment in Afghanistan, where NATO and US forces are battling Taliban insurgents alongside government forces.
"Send the message to your president that he must withdraw his troops from our country before the end of February 2009 or else we will take action in your capitalist department stores and this time, without warning," it said.
Sarkozy decided this year to add hundreds of troops to the French contingent serving in Afghanistan.
France's force is now one of the largest there, after the United States, Britain, Canada and Germany.
In November, an Afghan Taliban leader had warned in a video broadcast on an Arab satellite network of attacks in Paris unless France withdrew its soldiers.
[AFP / Expatica]