France arrests 12 in counter-terror raids, but denies link to US alert

French counter-terrorism investigators arrested 12 people in two separate inquiries yesterday but played down links with a Europe-wide terror alert issued by the US government last weekend.

Three men were arrested in dawn raids in Marseille and in the Bordeaux area for questioning about their alleged links with a Frenchman who was seized with bomb-making equipment in Italy on Saturday. Nine suspected radical Islamist sympathisers were arrested in raids in the Marseille and Avignon areas as part of a lengthy investigation of alleged "links with a terrorist organisation".

Security officials said that it was a "timetabling coincidence" that the two series of raids happened on the same day. They played down suggestions that there was any connection with Washington's warning on Sunday of an imminent terrorist threat to Britain, France and Germany.

A similar warning, from the Algerian government, that an Islamist terrorist group had entered France, was widely publicised by French politicians and officials last month. Security officials later described the warning, including the possibility of an attack on the Paris metro by a female suicide bomber, as "not very credible".

It remains unclear whether the US warning, first publicised by the Fox News network in America, is a separate case or a belated echo of the information from Algeria.

On Saturday police in Naples arrested Ryad Hannoumi, 28, a Frenchman who had recently returned from Afghanistan. He was said to have been found with "bomb-making equipment".

The names of the three men arrested near Bordeaux and in Marseille yesterday were said to have been found in Mr Hannoumi's possession. All are suspected of being part of an "Afghan network", which recruits Islamist militant sympathisers in western Europe.

Mr Hannoumi is believed to have fought with the Taliban in Afghanistan. He is suspected of being part of an Afghan group of European ex-fighters who have been ordered to re-infiltrate Europe. French security sources played down links with the US warning.

The nine other people arrested in southern France yesterday were said to be wanted for questioning as part of a lengthy investigation into suspected Islamist radical groups by an anti-terror magistrate in Paris. Once again, security sources declined to make any link with the Washington warning of an imminent terrorist threat to Europe.

There has been a series of bomb scares in Paris in recent weeks, including two at the Eiffel Tower and two at the Gare Saint Lazare. All have proved to be hoaxes.

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