Terrorist attack prevented in France and 7 arrested, says minister

Police say they arrested men in Strasbourg and Marseille

French military patrol near the Eiffel Tower the day after a series of deadly attacks in Paris , November 14, 2015.   (Yves Herman/Reuters)

French military patrol near the Eiffel Tower the day after a series of deadly attacks in Paris , November 14, 2015. (Yves Herman/Reuters)

PARIS — French anti-terrorism police have arrested seven men in Strasbourg and Marseille who had links to Syria and had been plotting an attack on France for several months, the interior minister said Monday.

A series of arrests in June and this past Sunday put an end to the plot and “allowed us to thwart a terrorist act that had been envisaged for a long time on our soil,” Bernard Cazeneuve told reporters in Paris. France remains under a state of emergency imposed after deadly Islamic State attacks on Paris last year.

The suspects are believed to have initially wanted to target the Euro 2016 European soccer tournament earlier this year but later focused on another target, possibly in Paris or Marseille, according to a security official. The official was not authorized to be publicly named speaking about ongoing investigations.

The June arrests involved people behind financing the alleged attack plot, while the Sunday arrests targeted the operational team — and both groups were under orders from unidentified commanders in Syria, the official said. Weapons were also seized in Sunday’s arrests, the official said.

Cazeneuve said investigators are studying whether the thwarted attack was part of a larger plot to attack multiple sites simultaneously.

Five of the suspects are French, one is Moroccan and the other Afghan, and they are between 29 and 37 years old, the security official said. Cazeneuve said six of them hadn’t been known to intelligence services.

The Moroccan had apparently been living in Portugal. Portuguese police said Monday that they had flagged a 26-year-old Moroccan residing in Aveiro in northern Portugal to other European authorities, warning that he was part of a terrorist group. In statement, the police said they had been watching him since 2015, and he was arrested by French police over the weekend.

One of the suspects worked for the Strasbourg city government on special events, Strasbourg metropolitan area president Robert Hermann said, according to his office.

The arrests rattled nerves in Strasbourg because they came just five days before the opening of the city’s famed Christmas market, which attracts tourists from across Europe and was the target of a failed extremist plot in 2000 by Algerian and French militants who had trained in Afghanistan.

However, Mayor Roland Ries said the case had no direct link to the market, so the event will open as usual Friday — under heavy security.

The raids in Strasbourg took place in the Neuhof and Meinau neighbourhoods, where authorities dismantled a jihadi network in 2014 that included the brother of an Islamic State bomber who attacked the Bataclan concert hall in Paris last year.

French police have detained 418 people this year in terrorism investigations, Cazeneuve said.

“In the face of a threat that remains very high in France, everything is being done, at every moment, to protect the French,” President Francois Hollande said in a statement about the new arrests.

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