19 Apr 2017

Arrests in France over 'pre-election attack plot'

8:38 am on 19 April 2017

Two men have been arrested on suspicion of planning an "imminent" attack in France, days before the first round of the French presidential election.

This combination of two handout pictures released by the French Police on April 18, 2017 and created on April 18, 2017 shows Clement Baur (L) and Mahiedine Merabet (R) arrested in Marseille, southern France, on April 18, 2017

A France police handout reportedly showing Clément Baur, left, and Mahiedine Merabet. Photo: AFP / French Police

Police said they found explosives and several guns at a flat linked to the suspects.

Two Frenchmen were detained in Marseille on Tuesday.

They had met in prison, and were known to police as Islamist radicals.

France remains under a state of emergency after a series of attacks that have claimed about 230 lives.

Three of the leading candidates in the presidential election - Emmanuel Macron, Marine Le Pen and François Fillon - were warned last week of security risks linked to the two men, party officials said.

The suspects are Mahiedine Merabet, 29, from Croix near the Belgian border, and Clément Baur, aged 23 from Ermont, north of Paris.

French prosecutor François Molins said they had been planning an "imminent" attack but the target, or targets, remained unknown.

He said they had made 3kg of the highly volatile explosive TATP, with one batch ready for use.

Mahiedine M had made a video featuring the black flag of Islamic State (IS), an Uzi sub-machine gun, and a newspaper depicting a presidential candidate, Mr Molins said

'Terrorist' inquiry

Members of the French RAID police unit leave after searching the home of one of two men arrested in Marseille on April 18, 2017

Members of the French police after searching the home of one of two men arrested in Marseille on April 18, 2017. Photo: AFP

France's domestic intelligence service (DGSI) is said to suspect the pair of plotting an attack to coincide with the election. The men were being held as part of an inquiry into "criminal terrorist association and violating the law on arms relating to a terrorist enterprise".

With France approaching the climax of the election campaign, the arrests became a major political development on Tuesday.

It has emerged that centre-right candidate François Fillon was warned of "confirmed risks" late last week, with the focus said to be an Easter rally in Nice.

A Fillon spokesman told French media that since Thursday (local time) "the security detail was reinforced around him during his travels".

Photos of the two suspects were also circulated last week to security officers looking after the two election front-runners: centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

Mr Macron called for unity and said the arrests were a reminder of the "strong terrorist threat" facing France.

Ms Le Pen has accused the government of failing to tackle militant Islamists and her adviser, Florian Philippot, said on French TV that "our democracy itself, our voting operation and electoral campaigns are under threat".

Far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, himself riding high in the opinion polls, sent text messages of support to Mr Fillon and Mr Macron offering his "complete solidarity".

Eleven candidates will contest the first round on 23 April, with the top two qualifying for the run-off on 7 May.

'Remarkable capture'

The interior minister said 50,000 members of the security forces were being deployed for the elections, particularly at polling stations.

President François Hollande praised the Marseille operation as a "remarkable capture".

Although no major attack has been carried out on French soil in recent months, two soldiers were attacked with machetes outside the Louvre museum in Paris in February. In the same month, three men and a 16-year-old girl were detained in Montpellier on suspicion of planning a bomb attack.

France has been under a state of emergency since the Paris attacks in November 2015 and officials said the risk was still very high, pointing to recent murders in the UK and Sweden.

On 22 March, Khalid Masood killed five people in London when he drove into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge and stabbed policeman Keith Palmer outside Parliament.

On 7 April, Rakhmat Akilov, 39, drove a lorry into a Stockholm department store, leaving four people dead.

-BBC

Get the new RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs