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French police arrest 10 suspected radicals

Critics say Sarkozy is pushing raids to help reelection

Associated Press

The arrests are part of a high-profile crackdown on radical Islamists after attacks on soldiers and a Jewish school and followed the second countrywide sweep in several days.

PARIS - French police rounded up 10 suspected radical Islamists in their second countrywide sweep in several days Wednesday, leading to criticism that President Nicolas Sarkozy is ramping up raids to win votes in a tight election.

The arrests are part of a high-profile crackdown following attacks on soldiers and a Jewish school. Authorities carried out the raids as part of a preliminary investigation opened Monday into terror-linked activity in France, a judicial official said.

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Another official close to the investigation said the 10 detained were suspected of links to Islamist websites and of threatening violence in online forums. Some of them may have been trying to attend jihadist training camps along the Afghan-Pakistan border, he added.

Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity, citing policy.

The operation was led by France’s counterespionage agency and targeted people authorities feared could turn to action instead of just issuing idle threats, according to the judicial official. Police seized computer hardware in the raids.

The raids in five cities, mostly in southern France, were the second in several days.

Sarkozy, who is facing a tough reelection, has promised to hunt down radicals and hold them to account or kick them out of the country. But he has come under criticism for using the raids and expulsions to further his campaign, and critics also say he did not do enough to prevent the killings last month in and around Toulouse that left seven dead.

Interior Ministry spokesman Pierre-Henry Brandet said that since those killings, “we are a lot more on edge. We are extremely vigilant and, as the president said, there is zero tolerance.’’

But he insisted that those rounded up in the recent raids would have been detained regardless of what happened in Toulouse.

On Tuesday, preliminary charges were filed against 13 people who were picked up in a sweep last week, all members of a banned group, Forsane Alizza, or Knights of Pride. Nine of them were jailed. The four others were released but must report to officials.

Some of those charged were reportedly calling for Muslim Sharia law to be implemented in France.

The second official emphasized that those arrested Wednesday were not linked to Forsane Alizza or to the Toulouse attacks.

The raids represent the increased focus in France on homegrown radicals. Last month’s attacks on French paratroopers and the Jewish school have been blamed on Mohamed Merah, a 23-year-old Frenchman who claimed to have received weapons training during trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Merah was killed in a gunfight with police March 22 after a standoff.

France expelled a foreign radical imam and a radical Islamist militant earlier this week, sending them to their homelands. Others are in line to be forced out of France.

Sarkozy on Tuesday declared a “zero tolerance’’ policy for hate speech and radical ideologies at odds with French.

Sarkozy has a tough-on-crime, tough-on-immigration reputation and has championed France’s ban on the Islamic face veil, arguing it imprisons women and runs counter to human rights. France has Western Europe’s largest Muslim population, many of whom feel stigmatized by such measures and authorities’ focus on Islam since the Merah case.

Sarkozy’s administration and police came under criticism after the Toulouse killings for not stopping the perpetrator sooner, since they knew he had traveled to Afghanistan and the Pakistani militant stronghold of Waziristan.

Police had Merah under surveillance after his return, but officials have said they could not arrest him.

In light of the criticism, a parliamentary delegation held a hearing Wednesday on the role and organization of France’s intelligence forces.

The delegation’s work is considered top secret, and an unusual news conference scheduled to follow the hearing was abruptly canceled.

Sarkozy’s opponents have also criticized the timing of the recent high-profile operations against suspected radicals.

Francois Hollande, who is leading most polls ahead of the April and May elections, said the president was trying to make up for earlier intelligence failures.

“What’s surprising is why do this after a terrorist attack that has, it’s true, profoundly affected us,’’ Hollande said on RTL radio, reacting to Wednesday’s raids. “I’m not questioning all that’s being done. I’m simply saying that we should have maybe done more before.’’

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