France arrests men suspected of planning attack ahead of elections

Paris Prosecutor François Molins pictured during a press conference at the headquarters of the Federal Prosecutor in Brussels, 21 March 2016. [Laurent Dubrule/EPA]

Two men arrested in Marseille on Tuesday (18 April) planned an “imminent and violent attack” ahead of the first round of France’s presidential election on Sunday (23 April), authorities said.

“These two radicalised men … intended to commit in the very short-term – by that I mean in the coming days – an attack on French soil,” Interior Minister Matthias Fekl told a news conference.

Paris Prosecutor François Molins said in a news conference that weapons, explosives, videos and jidhadist propaganda materials had been found in the flat rented by French nationals Clement Baur, 23, and Mahiedine Merabet, 30, since 1 April.

“A video intercepted on 12 April showed a machinegun placed on a table, with a daily newspaper from 13 March which had on its front page one of the presidential candidates.

“This morning the investigators managed to locate the apartment,” Molins said, without naming the candidate.

France’s internal intelligence agency had warned the main candidates of a threat, campaign officials said.

EU anti-terror czar: ‘The threat is coming from inside Europe’

A year after the Brussels attacks, Gilles de Kerchove told EURACTIV.com about the fast pace of development of EU security policy, calling for the “systematic use of biometrics” and “batch comparison” of databases in order to boost security in the Schengen area.

Comments by officials indicated that former prime minister François Fillon, centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen were among those alerted to the risk.

France goes to the polls on 23 April 23 and on 7 May in one of the most unpredictable elections in its modern history with security a key issue after attacks by militant Islamists which have killed more than 230 people in the past two years.

Islamic State

Molins said the Marseille suspects met in 2015 while sharing a prison cell for petty crime.

He said Baur had converted to Islam in 2007, was known to have had links with Chechen and Belgian jihadist networks and Belgian authorities had been investigating him.

A tip-off from another country had said Merabet was likely to carry out a violent act and was seeking to make contact with Islamic State, either to pledge allegiance to the group or ask it to claim responsibility for the planned attack, Molins said.

“The main candidates were warned in the middle of the last week that there was a risk and that two individuals had been identified. We received their photos and security of the candidates. Their meetings and headquarters were given extra protection,” Macron’s spokesman Benjamin Griveaux told Reuters.

Cazeneuve: Over 100 arrested on terror charges in France this year

France has arrested 101 people since the start of the year over “direct links to terrorism”, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said in an interview to be published later today (13 May), exactly six months after the Paris attacks.

Officials from Fillon’s camp and Le Pen’s National Front said they also had received word of a possible attack.

With the country still under a state of emergency, Fekl said 50,000 police, gendarmes and soldiers would be deployed for each leg of the election, and security reinforced for the candidates.

“Everything has been put in place to ensure the security of this big event for our democracy and our Republic. The security forces are mobilised everywhere across France to ensure the security of French people and to ensure the presidential campaign goes smoothly,” he said.

Le Pen, one of the frontrunners in the race for the Elysee, is scheduled to hold the last big rally of her campaign in Marseille on Wednesday (19 April), according to her programme.

ISIS in Würzburg

Following an axe attack on a Bavarian commuter train on Monday (18 July) by an Afghan asylum seeker claiming allegiance to ISIS, Germany’s news media were awash with reports that the terrorist organisation had finally staged a successful attack. EURACTIV.com news editor Joel Schalit, was almost there.

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