France seizes 17 Islamist suspects in dawn raids after Toulouse killings

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French police arrested 17 suspected Islamist extremists in a series of dawn raids across the country yesterday, a week after the death of the Toulouse killer Mohamed Merah.

President Nicolas Sarkozy said the operation was intended to calm anxieties aroused by what he described as “France’s 9/11” – Merah’s reign of terror in south-west France.

Some opposition politicians suggested that, au contraire, Mr Sarkozy was “playing with” French fears of radical Islam for electoral reasons.

Police said that none of the arrests – in Toulouse, Nantes, Lyon, the greater Paris area and the Côte d’Azur – were linked directly to Merah’s attacks in the Toulouse area which killed seven.

The Interior Minister, Claude Guéant, said the detainees were “people who boasted on the internet that they were mujahadins with an extremely radical ideology – an ideology of violence”.

A number of weapons, including Kalashnikov rifles, were reported to have been seized. Initially police arrested 19 suspects, but two were later freed. President Sarkozy promised similar raids in the days ahead “which will allow us to expel … a certain number of people who have no reason to be here.”

Those arrested in Nantes included Mohammed Achamlane, leader of Forsane Alizza (Horsemen of Pride), a radical Islamist group banned by the government last month.

President Sarkozy appealed for “national unity” and no anti-Islamic feeling after the Toulouse killings. He has, however, campaigned increasingly stridently in recent days against “uncontrolled immigration” and the alleged softness on security issues of the Socialist candidate, François Hollande, his main rival in the presidential election.

Opinion polls suggest the Toulouse killings have helped to strengthen Mr Sarkozy’s position, giving him a narrow lead in most polls before the first round of the elections three weeks from tomorrow. Mr Hollande remains favourite to win the second-round run-off on 6 May.

The Socialist candidate, presumably unwilling to give Mr Sarkozy new ammunition, made no comment on the arrests. The candidate of the harder left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon accused Mr Sarkozy of “playing with fear”. Steeve Briois, secretary general of the far-right National Front, said the arrests were an “electoral fishing expedition”.

Separately, President Sarkozy suffered a legal blow yesterday. An appeal court in Bordeaux refused to release from custody Patrice de Maistre, the former financial manager of the L’Oréal heiress, Liliane Bettencourt. Mr Maistre was arrested last week by a judge investigating allegations that Mr Sarkozy took €400,000 in illegal campaign contributions from Ms Bettencourt in 2007.