The French Interior Ministry yesterday claimed a breakthrough after police arrested an Algerian described as a "co-ordinator" of recent bomb attacks in France and thwarted a planned bomb attack in the northern city of Lille. In all, 10 people, all of North African origin, were detained in a three-pronged operation in Paris, Lille and Lyons. Last night, six of the suspects were in custody in Paris, awaiting questioning.
The arrests appear to link all the bomb attacks in the Paris and the Lyons areas since July, and mark the first significant development in the case since a prime suspect, Khaled Kelkal, was shot dead by police near Lyons in September. The anti-terrorist department, internal security forces and the intelligence services were all involved in yesterday's operation, which experts said had "smashed the architecture and the nervous system" of the Islamic terrorist network in France.
In a statement issued after the arrests were announced, the Interior Minister, Jean-Louis Debre, congratulated the police on pre-empting an "especially murderous criminal act" intended for one of Lille's biggest and most crowded markets. The Lille conurbation, which has a large North African population, and is France's third largest city after Paris and Lyons, was high on the list of likely bomb targets.
Police were said to have found all the components needed to make a large bomb in a raid on a council flat in Villeneuve-d'Ascq, near Lille.
According to the Interior Ministry, they included "a 13kg gas cylinder, explosives, nails, bolts, a fuse and a timing device which were in every respect identical to those discovered at the scene of some earlier attacks". The three people in the flat at the time were arrested, among them a certain Ali Ben Fatoum, who was described as "a big catch".
The Algerian arrested in Paris was named as Boualem Bensaid, 28, a student who had been under surveillance for several days. Mr Debre said Mr Bensaid had played "an active role in the command and co-ordination" of the networks responsible for the terrorist attacks committed by the GIA (the Armed Islamic Group) in France over the summer. The GIA, which accuses France of trying to shore up the military-backed regime in Algeria, made known its involvement last month October through an Islamic newsletter.
Mr Debre said Mr Bensaid, described by the concierge at his block of flats as "a polite young man who never wore jeans", was on the point of giving the order for the Lille attack. He added: "He appears to be one of the pivots of this criminal enterprise
Karim Koussa, who is recovering in hospital from injuries sustained in a shoot-out with police six weeks ago, has recently been extensively questioned by investigators. The third police raid, in Vaulx-en-Velin, near Lyons, where Kelkal lived, netted Naserdine Slimani, 25, who was said to be linked with both Kelkal and Mr Bensaid. Arms, ammunition and computer equipment were also found.
The arrests came in the nick of time for the police and Interior Ministry, which have faced criticism over their failure to halt bomb attacks, despite the two-month security alert, codenamed Vigipirate. Media comment has questioned the cost and usefulness of the exercise, which has put troops on the streets and alienated the young immigrant population with frequent identity checks.
Yesterday, Mr Debre singled out "the minute attention to detail, patience, professionalism and great secrecy" of the operation. However, learning from his gaffe after Kelkal's death, when he had predicted the end of the attacks, he called for continued vigilance.