TOULOUSE, France, Nov 24, (Agencies): French anti-terrorist police accompanied by helicopters descended on a small southwestern French village on Tuesday searching for a Salafist preacher suspected of mentoring young jihadists, a source close to the case said.
The operation, one of dozens that police have been conducting in suspected Islamist circles after the Nov 13 attacks, targeted imam Olivier Corel, nicknamed the “White Emir”, in Arigat in the Pyrenees mountains of southwestern France, the source said.
The search centred on Corel, 69, the suspected mentor for Mohammad Merah, who killed seven people in 2012, many at a Jewish school in Toulouse, and Fabien Clain, whose voice was identified on an audio tape in which the Islamic State claimed responsibility for killing 130 in Paris on Nov 13.
Corel, a French national of Syrian origin who lives in Arigat, was arrested but later released at the time of the Merah attacks, the source said. Dozens of people have been arrested and homes searched by police in the wake of the Nov 13 attacks, most of them as part of a broad sweep that is not specifically targeting people thought to have played a direct role in the attacks. Meanwhile, German police launched an operation on Tuesday after getting a tip-off that Paris attack suspect Salah Abdeslam, at the centre of an international manhunt, was in northwestern Germany but said they have so far found no indication that he is there.
The police received a lead that Abdeslam might be at an address known to them in the area of Minden and Luebbecke in the state of North Rhine- Westphalia. Abdeslam, whose brother blew himself up in the Paris attacks which killed at least 130 people, has been on the run since Nov 13. As a French citizen, he can travel freely between countries in the European Union’s Schengen area where there are no border controls.
Police in Bielefeld said they had been following up a lead from a witness who informed them that they saw someone resembling the suspect. “After initial intensive investigations, there has so far been no indication to confirm the suspicion,” the police said in a statement. “The deployment is continuing at the moment.”
A spokesman also denied a newspaper report that they had made an arrest. French authorities on Tuesday questioned a top suspect linked to attackers who terrorized Paris, while Belgium’s capital remained locked down under threat of a possible similar attack. Jawad Bendaoud, the only person in France known to be facing potential terrorism charges directly linked to the Nov 13 Paris attacks that killed 130 people and wounded hundreds, was handed over Tuesday morning to an anti-terrorism judge in Paris, according to a judicial official.
Bendaoud was detained last week for providing lodging to the suspected mastermind of the attacks in an apartment in the Paris suburb of Saint- Denis. Police raided the apartment Nov 18, and three people were killed — including suspected attacks orchestrator Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a female cousin and one other. Bendaoud acknowledged in a television interview giving shelter to two people from Belgium, but said he didn’t know who they were or what they planned. Bendaoud, 29, told BFM television, “I didn’t know they were terrorists. I was asked to do a favor. I did a favor, sir.” He must be either charged or released Tuesday. French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve told lawmakers on Tuesday that 124 people had been handed preliminary charges since a state of emergency was imposed hours after the attacks, following more than 1,230 searches in which 230 weapons were recovered. He didn’t, however, specify what the charges were or if they were linked to the attacks. In Belgium, four people have been handed terrorism charges since the Paris attacks, which have been traced to a network of people with ties to both France and Belgium. Brussels remained at its highest alert level Tuesday, after Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel cited a “serious and imminent threat” to the city, which houses the headquarters of the European Union and NATO. Belgium’s crisis center said the alert level would only change if a significant breakthrough warranted it. Increased security measures in the wake of the massacre in Paris have virtually shut down the Belgian capital, with the subway system, many shops and schools remaining shut. Michel said that despite the continued high alert, schools would reopen on Wednesday.
Businesses in Brussels were starting to feel the pain, and while few question the government’s need to protect the public from a potential attack, some shop owners said the shutdown was too extreme. “It’s not a very good decision,” said Esther Willems, assistant manager at the Galler chocolate shop in the heart of Brussels’ city center. “In the last two days, we have only had about 10-11 clients” compared with about 100 normally. Willems said she hoped things would improve Wednesday. Many questions remain unanswered as investigators try to piece together what happened in Paris on the night of Nov 13 and who might still be at large. Only one fugitive has been publicly named: Salah Abdeslam, who crossed into Belgium the morning after the attacks. Astreet cleaner in a Paris suburb found an explosive vest Monday near the place where Abdeslam’s cellphone was found, raising the possibility that he aborted his mission, either ditching a malfunctioning vest or fleeing in fear. Authorities said the device, which did not have a detonator, was found in the southern Paris suburb of Montrouge. A police official said the vest contained bolts and the same type of explosive used in the Nov 13 attacks. France’s security chiefs held a meeting Tuesday about protection for next year’s European soccer championships, being hosted in cities around France. Concerns are especially high because one of the targets of the Nov 13 attacks was the country’s national stadium.
Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve also held a meeting with French Muslim leaders, who have denounced the attacks and expressed concern about a backlash on France’s largely moderate, 5-millionstrong Muslim community. Also Tuesday, French police released a photo of a dog killed in the Saint-Denis apartment siege, a 7-year-old Belgian shepherd named Diesel. The National Police said Diesel, a SWAT team assault dog, was “killed by terrorists.”