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France arrested 10 suspected Islamist militants today, the latest detentions in an ongoing government crackdown since a French citizen, claiming inspiration from Al Qaeda, killed seven people last month.
The 10 were arrested in early morning raids in five different locations across the country, mostly in the south. Several news reports indicated they were either planning to go to Afghanistan or Pakistan to attend militant training camps or had recently returned. The New York Times reports that they fit the same "disaffected loner profile" as Mohammed Merah, the 23-year-old French-born Muslim responsible for last month's shootings, and were not part of any sort of network.
Today's raid was the second in the past couple of weeks, although President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is running for reelection in a tight race, said the arrests are not connected to either Mr. Merah's killings or the upcoming presidential elections.
Reuters notes that some French media outlets had been tipped off about the raids and police did not block off the area, encouraging mass coverage of the raid.
Yesterday, a state prosecutor announced that judicial authorities would be indicting 13 alleged Muslim militants, arrested in raids on March 30, who are suspected of plotting terrorist "acts" in France. The 13 were members of the local Islamist group Forsane Alizza ("Knights of Pride"), according to the Times. BBC reports that the group was banned last month.
Among the arrested, nine of whom are awaiting trial in prison, is the leader of the group, Mohamed Achamlane, CNN reports. Forsane Alizza was "calling for the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in France and calling for the implementation of Sharia law and inciting Muslims in France to unite for the preparation of a civil war," Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said.
French authorities say that the group has been under investigation since October 2011, and the sting's timing, so soon after Merah's shootings, is coincidence. Mr. Achamlane's lawyer rejected the accusations, saying that his client was being used as a political tool in presidential elections. "These are statements that are not supported by any material facts. This affair is purely electioneering and politically motivated, that is all," Philippe Missamou said, according to CNN.
Reuters reports that, according to prosecutor Mr. Molins, the operation against the group was "brought forward by events in Toulouse" and because the group appeared to be ramping up training and weapons acquisition and holding regular meetings, suggesting "imminent" action.
The Interior ministry announced on April 2 that five Muslim preachers would be expelled from the country. Two have since been deported, and there are plans to expel three more. Interior Minister Claude Gueant said "the moves were part of 'an acceleration of the deportation procedures of foreign Islamic radicals.' " The five are all from other countries: Algeria, Mali, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and Turkey, CNN reports.
Security has become a major campaign theme since Merah's deadly rampage, particularly for Mr. Sarkozy, who has caught up in the polls to Socialist challenger François Hollande. Critics of Sarkozy have accused him of capitalizing on the national tragedy. Centrist challenger François Bayrou said today that "it was normal for the state to round up people suspected of crimes, but that when 'that is done with journalists summoned and in the presence of cameras, I find that astonishing,' " Agence France-Presse reports.
Seventy percent of voters approved of Sarkozy's handling of the situation, Reuters reports, and his ratings have "inched" up, although he is still projected to lose to Mr. Hollande in the runoff on May 6.