France arrests 19 in terror crackdown

A policeman stands guard as relatives of Islamist extremist Mohamed Merah attend the burial of his body March 29, 2012, in the Muslim unit of the cemetery in the Cornebarrieu neighborhood of Toulouse, France. AFP/Getty Images

Updated at 7:54 a.m. Eastern

(AP) PARIS - French police detained 19 people Friday as they launched a crackdown on suspected Islamist extremists in cities around the country, the French president said, promising more raids to come.

Tensions are high following a spate of killings in southern France by a radical Islamist that left seven people dead and two wounded and ended up with police killing the gunman last week after a 32-hour standoff.

President Nicolas Sarkozy gave no details about the reasons for Friday's arrests or what the detainees were suspected of.

"It's in connection with a form of Islamist radicalism," Sarkozy said on Europe-1 radio. "There will be other operations that will continue and that will allow us to expel from our national territory a certain number of people who have no reason to be here."

Sarkozy said he didn't know whether the 19 detainees were part of any network.

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A police investigator told The Associated Press that the anti-terrorist section of the Criminal Brigade detained five men before dawn in Paris who had suspected links to an Islamist movement. Weapons were also seized, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with the department's rules.

The other arrests took place in Toulouse, Marseille, Nantes and Lyon, the official said, adding that these raids were not linked to the inquiry into the slayings in Toulouse and Montauban.

In Nantes, the head of Forsane Alizza, a radical Muslim group that formed two years ago, was among the detained. In October 2011, a preliminary inquiry was opened into the Forsane Alizza organization, and the French Interior Ministry broke up the group in February.

Mohamed Merah, a 23-year-old Frenchman, claimed responsibility for the shootings that left seven dead. Merah, who espoused radical Islamist views and said he had links to al Qaeda, was buried near Toulouse on Thursday.

Three Jewish schoolchildren, three paratroopers and a rabbi were killed in the worst terrorist attacks in France since the 1990s. The slayings revived concerns about homegrown Islamist radicals carrying out violence.

French Muslims have worried about a backlash after Merah's attacks, and French leaders have urged the public not to equate Islam with terrorism.

But concerns about radical Islam are high, and the government on Thursday banned a string of international Muslim clerics from entering France for a conference of a fundamentalist Islamic group.

Sarkozy is locked into a tough battle for re-election ahead of the first round April 22 presidential vote. For years he has made law and order one of his signature themes.

"It's our duty to guarantee the security of the French people. We have no choice. It's absolutely indispensable," he said.

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