Paris airport strips 70 Muslim staff of security clearance

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Seventy two employees of Paris's main airport have lost their security clearance after an anti-terrorism investigation that they posed a security risk.

Trade unions at Charles de Gaulle airport are threatening to go on strike over the issue, which they say amounts to religious discrimination. They claim the workers were targeted because they are Muslims.

The employees - mainly aircraft cleaners or baggage handlers - are suspected by France's anti-terrorism co-ordination unit, Uclat, of having links with radical Islam, or of attending terrorist training camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

According to Uclat, one was a friend of Richard Reid, the British "shoe bomber" who tried to blow up a flight from Paris to Miami in December 2001 and is serving a life sentence in the United States.

Jacques Lebrot, the deputy prefect of the Seine-Saint Denis département in which the airport is located, said all but two of the workers who lost their accreditation were Muslims. Charles de Gaulle airport draws many of its employees from the surrounding, troubled northern suburbs of Paris, where much of the population is of north African origin.

Declining to give details of the suspicions against the employees, M. Lebrot rejected the claims of discrimination. "Mr or Mrs X who goes to pray in a mosque and travels to Mecca for the pilgrimage is not a problem for us. But we will ask questions if we find someone who has spent his holidays several times in Pakistan," he said.'

Unions at the airport are meeting on Tuesday to consider strike action. On the following Friday, a court in Cergy-Pontoise will hear the case for unfair dismissal brought by six men who were sacked.

The plaintiffs are supported by the CFDT union and have worked at the airport for up to nine years. Five are baggage handlers of north African descent while the sixth, a security guard, is a Frenchman who converted to Islam after marrying a Moroccan.

The men's lawyer, Eric Moutet, said that when they were questioned by Uclat agents last month there appeared to be no objective evidence against them. "They were asked how often they go to mosque, whether they had been to Mecca and whether they know any imams. The only common denominator is that they are Muslims," he said.

The spotlight fell on Charles de Gaulle, which is also known by its place name, Roissy, after the nationalist politician, Philippe de Villiers, published a book in April. In Les Mosquées de Roissy", Mr De Villiers claimed that staff quarters were festooned with secret prayer rooms and that the airport was prey to Islamist infiltration. Two months later, the Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy ordered the closure of unofficial prayer areas in the airport.

Mohamed Seddiki, 35, a baggage handler, will be among the plaintiffs in next week's case. French-born and of Tunisian parents, he was told last month that his security badge was being cancelled because his profile "represented a significant danger".

Mr Seddiki said: "I have worked for six years at Roissy without any problems. In June they closed our prayer room and now I am told I am a danger. All this is paranoia caused by De Villiers's book. Apart from being called Mohamed, I can't see what they have against me."

Mr Lebrot insisted that the investigations had been thorough. He said his office at the airport had authorised 57,532 security passes since the beginning of the year. "People accuse us of targeting Muslims but they do not talk about the tens of thousands (of Muslim employees) who did not receive a letter from us," he said.