French police chief warns terror threat serious
The national police chief added his name Wednesday to the growing list of senior figures warning that France faces a serious threat of imminent terrorist attack.
The warnings come while France has been the target of violent threats on Jihadi websites, including from known Islamist militant leaders, over its ban on the full-face Muslim veil and its overseas military operations.
Frederic Pechenard, director general of police and domestic intelligence services, said that security measures had been stepped up since last week when evidence came to light that militants are planning an attack.
"I'm not here to frighten people," he told Europe 1 radio, "but we have serious evidence coming from reliable intelligence sources telling us that there is a risk of a major attack."
Police had stepped up security and were being "extremely vigilant", but the official national terror alert level had not been increased, he added.
France's anti-terror posture is already at alert level "reinforced red". If it were to be increased to the top level -- "scarlet" -- it would mean taking drastic measures like closing airports and railway stations, he said.
Pechenard said authorities were concerned about two types of threat; an assassination bid on an important figure or an attempted mass casualty attack on a crowded public area like a metro train or department store.
On Monday, asked about reports that an Islamist attack in Paris might be imminent, French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux told reporters: "The threat is real, we have stepped up our vigilance."
Judicial officials confirmed that police are probing reports that a female suicide bomber may be preparing a strike in Paris, and an interior ministry source added: "That's not necessarily the most worrying thing."
The Algerian intelligence agency has passed on warnings about militants heading to French to carry out attacks, and officials say there is also evidence of Jihadi fighters returning from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Senators voted last week to pass a ban on full face veils, such as the niqab worn by a tiny minority of French Muslim women, and it will go into effect in around six months if approved by constitutional judges.
French troops, meanwhile, are fighting Islamic militants in Afghanistan -- where they are part of the NATO mission -- and in West Africa, where in July they took part in a commando raid against an Al-Qaeda 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.
Al-Qaeda's North African wing Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) claimed responsibility for killing Germaneau and vowed to avenge the raid.
The group was behind last week's kidnap in Niger of seven foreign nationals working for French uranium mining firms, including five French citizens.
AQIM has taken its captives, which include a French married couple, to Mali. France has sent an 80-strong military intelligence detachment equipped with spotter planes to the Sahara to hunt down the gang.
© 2010 AFP