France arrests 19 suspected Islamists in dawn raids


This screengrab from France 2 television shows an image of Mohammed Merah. The video was reportedly filmed by Merah's friends a year and a half ago in the suburbs of Toulouse.

PARIS, France — French police have arrested 19 suspected so-called Islamist radicals and seized weapons in dawn raids in several cities across the country, including Toulouse, the home of gunman Mohammed Merah, Agence France Presse reported.

Among those arrested was Mohammed Achamlane, the leader of the Forsane Alizza (Knights of Pride) radical Salafist group disbanded by the French Interior Ministry in February. Three Kalashnikov assault rifles, a Glock pistol and a grenade were seized from his home.

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Other raids led to discoveries of rifles, handguns and a bulletproof vest, France Info reported, adding that the operation targeted young suspects who had spent time in Afghanistan.

Citing police sources, AFP reported that agents from France's DCRI domestic intelligence agency carried out the arrests, along with members of the elite Raid police commando group.

Most of the arrests took place in the Mirail neighborhood of Toulouse, a day after the burial of Merah – who died in a police assault in the southern city on March 22. Other arrests were made in Marseille, Lyon, Nice, Nantes, in the north, and in the Paris area.

Although police are seeking accomplices who may have helped Merah murder seven people in attacks this month, today's raids are "not directly related" to the Merah investigation, a police source told AFP. It is understood they are part of a plan to “dismantle terrorist networks.”

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French President Nicolas Sarkozy told Europe 1 radio the arrests were “in connection with a form of Islamist radicalism,” but did not elaborate on what charges the suspects may face.

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

“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.”

This morning's arrests come a day after France barred four Islamic preachers – a Palestinian, an Egyptian and two Saudis – from entering the country to attend a religious conference in Paris.

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