FRENCH police last night arrested 19 people suspected of being involved in a militant Islamist group in several towns including Toulouse.
They were reported to have been associated with a group, Forsane al-Izza, that had been mentioned by media in relation to the killing of seven people by motorcycle shooter Mohamed Merah in Toulouse this month.
It was “part of an investigation into French groups that are considered extremist and could pose a threat to the state”, said Cedric Delage, regional secretary for a police union. “At the moment, we don’t know if there is a direct link to Mohamed Merah, but there could be.”
Interrogations were due to begin immediately, he said.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said weapons including assault rifles had been seized. He promised more raids to come. “We have questions to put and what happened this morning is going to continue. There will also be other operations and we will be deporting people who have no business being here.”
Police have been searching for possible accomplices to Merah, who shot seven people, including three schoolchildren, in three separate attacks.
Merah died in a hail of police bullets after a 32-hour siege in his apartment last week.
His brother Abdelkader has been charged with helping him and police are hunting a third man who Abdelkader said was involved in the theft of the scooter Merah used in the killings. Police are also searching for whoever posted to TV channel al-Jazeera a USB stick with the videos Merah took of the killings.
The dawn raids were carried out by the French intelligence agency, the DCRI, along with elite RAID police commandos. One of the towns they targeted was Nantes, which is believed to be a centre for Forsane al-Izza (Knights of Pride). Some French media had linked Merah to this group, which was thought to have been shut down by the interior ministry in an earlier investigation.
Police also made arrests in Paris, Marseille, Lyon, Le Mans and Nice and seized weapons.
After the Merah killings, Mr Sarkozy demanded a security review of militant Islamists.
Merah was buried in Toulouse after his family’s country of origin, Algeria, refused to accept his body. A petty criminal with a history of psychiatric problems, he reportedly told police he acted to avenge Palestinian children and France’s military involvement in Afghanistan.
First published in The Age.<