Five Chechens with explosives arrested in France might be 'gangsters', not terrorists

The five men were 'not known' to anti-terrorist police, he said, and appeared more to fit the profile of people involved in organised crime

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The Independent Online

Five Chechens have been arrested with explosives in the south of France but investigators said last night that they might be “gangsters”, rather than terrorists.

Authorities said that explosives were discovered during a series of police raids overnight in Béziers on the Mediterranean coast and near Montpellier just to the east,

The local state prosecutor, Yvon Calvet, said last night that the  arrests followed a lengthy investigation, which had started long before the terrorist killings in Paris two weeks ago.

The five men were “not known” to anti-terrorist police, he said, and appeared more to fit the “profile” of  people involved in “grand banditisme” – or organised crime.

The  five “Russian citizens” arrested during police raids on Thursday night were all of Chechen origin. The  local newspaper Midi Libre said that a cache of explosives had been found near the local football stadium -  le Stade de Sauclières.

French media initially reported that investigators feared that the men were planning a terrorist attack. Mr Calvet said last night that nothing was ruled out but criminal activity seemed more likely.

The A.S. Béziers team plays in the fourth tier of French football and attracts only small crowds. No home game was scheduled for 10 days.

The mostly muslim republic of Chechnya, part of the Russian Federation, has seen mass street protests against France in recent days following the publication last week of a cartoon of the prophet Mohamed on the front of the  “survivors’ edition” of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

The arrests came almost two weeks after the gun attack on the magazine which started three days of terrorist mayhem in Paris which killed 17 people. 

Four men arrested in Paris last Thursday and Friday were  accused last night of conspiring to commit terrorist acts with Amédy Coulibaly, the gunman who murdered a policewoman and then four people at a Jewish supermarket in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings.

The men, aged 22, 25, 26 and 28, were taken before an investigating magistrate last night and formally accused – one step short of a charge – of “association with terrorists intending to wound or  kill people”. One of the four was also accused of illegal possession of weapons. 

The quartet are believed to have helped Coulibaly to acquire a car, a motor bike, telephones and an arsenal of weapons, including six Tokarev automatic pistols, two  Kalachnikov assault rifles, a revolver, tear-gas grenades and explosives.

All have previous convictions for non-terrorist crimes, Despite the wording of the accusation, investigators are said to be uncertain whether the four men knew that Coulibaly intended to commit terrorist attacks.

Eight other people arrested in Paris last week have been released.

Investigators said they believed that one of the four men might have been responsible for posting on the internet, the day after Coulibaly’s death, a video in which the killer posed with weapons and boasted of his plans to kill police and jews. 

In a blistering attack on the “social evils” which contribute to home-grown jihadism, the French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, said yesterday that France had allowed a “social and ethnic apartheid” to grow up on its soil.

In his new year address to the Paris press corps, Mr Valls linked the terrorist killings of recent days to the riots which swept through the poor, multi-racial suburbs of French towns and cities in November 2005.

No one spoke of the riots now, he said, but the “stigmata” of poverty, racism and rejection remained.

“Recent days have drawn attention to many of the ills which gnaw away at our country,” Mr Valls said. “To them we must add the fractures and tensions which have been neglected for too long…the dumping of people in ghettos on the edge of our towns and cities.”

The Prime Minister called  for a concerted attack on a “territorial, social and ethic apartheid” which marginalises people “because of their family name and the colour of their skin.”