France Nabs Three In Terror Sweep

French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy awards medals to police officers after three new terrorism suspects were nabbed, during a ceremony in their honor in Paris, Dec. 15, 2005.
AP
French counterterrorism agents arrested three suspects in a network with alleged ties to al Qaeda in Iraq, seizing guns, explosives and detonators in a sweep north of Paris, officials said Thursday.

The overnight roundup in the suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois stemmed from information culled in investigators' questioning of 25 suspects detained in a similar anti-terrorism sweep Monday, officials said.

"Thanks to questioning, a stash of arms has been discovered, which shows how serious this affair is," Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy told reporters. "A certain number of terrorists, in order to finance their activities, are involved in organized crime."

"We think they have indirect links fairly highly placed in the al Qaeda organization," Sarkozy said on the sidelines of an Interior Ministry ceremony honoring police who battled angry youths during three weeks of violence across France that began Oct. 27.

Police found a stash of weapons in a garage in the Parisian suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, said a police investigator who cannot be identified because his agency does not allow it.

Agents found several kilograms of explosives, AK-47 and Famas assault rifles, revolvers, ammunition, balaclavas and bulletproof vests, he said.

Asked by The Associated Press at the ceremony whether he was concerned that agents had discovered Famas rifles — standard issue for French soldiers — Sarkozy said, "Of course, I am."

Investigators believe the weapons were used to carry out armed robberies in France to finance jihad, or holy war, and that some of the funds may have gone to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's group, officials said.

"There were lots of elements showing a mix, if I can call it that, between Islamic militants and armed robbers," national police chief Michel Gaudin told the AP at the ceremony.

The police investigator said one member of the group under investigation was in contact with an intermediary who had contact with al-Zarqawi. The intermediary was killed in the spring in either Syria or Iraq, he said.

After the questioning, investigators believe the network was focusing on carrying out armed robberies to finance operations and have found no solid proof to confirm their original suspicion that the group was planning terror attacks of its own.

The Monday raid of homes and Internet cafes near Paris and in the northern Oise region was among the largest sweeps of suspected Islamic militants in France in more than two years.

Police had the alleged network under surveillance for months. Tunisians, Moroccans, Algerians and French nationals were detained in Monday's raid, and some were women, officials said.

Under French anti-terrorism laws, the suspects can be held for up to 96 hours. Two were released Tuesday without charge, according to judicial officials.

The arrests came as part of a judicial investigation into suspected terror networks and their financing conducted by anti-terrorism judges Philippe Coirre, Jean-Francois Ricard, Jean-Louis Bruguiere and Thierry Fragnoli.