PARIS, May 19, (Agencies): Islamic State militants are gearing up for a campaign of bomb attacks on large crowds in France, host to next month’s Euro 2016 soccer championships, its spy chief has said.
Rare remarks by Patrick Calvar, the head of France’s DGSI internal intelligence agency, to the parliament’s defence committee spelled out “a new form of attack … characterised by placing explosive devices in places where there are large crowds and repeating this type of action to create a climate of maximum panic.
“Clearly, France is the most threatened and we know that DAESH (Islamic State) is planning new attacks,” Calvar told the committee on May 10, according to a transcript of his testimony released to the media on Thursday.
The comments came six months after militants killed 130 people in coordinated assaults on cafes, bars, a football stadium and a music hall across Paris.
He said the militant group had the numbers to launch the new attacks, including some 645 French citizens or residents currently in Syria or Iraq, of which 400 were fighters. A further 201 were either in transit to or from the region, he said.
Euro 2016 starts on June 10 and runs for a month at 10 stadiums across France. About 2.5 million spectators are expected for 51 soccer matches involving 24 teams. There will also be “fan zones” for crowds watching games on big screens in major cities.
France’s police force is stretched after two militant attacks last year and regular street protests.
However, the government say all measures are in place to ensure it runs smoothly.
“We will not drop our guard,” Prime Minister Manuel Valls told RTL radio on Thursday when asked about Calvar’s comments.
In a reminder of the challenges facing security forces, a fake bomb left behind after a training exercise at Manchester United’s stadium in Britain forced the evacuation of the 75,000-seater ground and the abandonment of a match last weekend.
Referring to the Arabic acronym for Islamic State, Calvar said DAESH was still using the same migrant routes through the Balkans to get its fighters into Europe.
However, with the group under pressure from US-led air strikes in Syria it would want to hit back in Europe to show its supporters that it was still strong.
“It’s in a position where it would try to hit as quickly as possible and as hard as possible,” Calvar said.” It is facing military difficulties on the ground and so will want to divert attention and avenge coalition air strikes,” he said.
France’s parliament approved Thursday a two-month extension of the state of emergency, in place since November’s jihadist attacks, to cover the Euro 2016 football tournament and Tour de France.
Already backed by a large majority in the upper house Senate last week, the lower house National Assembly confirmed the measure on Thursday by 46 votes to 20.
“The terrorist threat remains at a high level and France, like the EU, is a target,” said Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve ahead of the vote.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls had earlier said there was no question of cancelling the Euro 2016 football tournament, which is expected to draw two million fans to the country between June 10 and July 10.
The state of emergency was imposed following the Nov 13 attacks that left 130 people dead in the French capital, and was already extended by three months in February until May 26.
It allows police to hold under house arrest people whose behaviour is considered “a threat to security and public order”.
But under the latest extension, police will no longer have the power to raid homes without a court order, as they have since November.
Since the measures were imposed some 3,500 searches have been carried out, at least 56 suspects taken into custody and 69 people placed under house arrest, the government said in mid April.
The French Human Rights League (LDH) has criticised the extension, saying the government was becoming “hooked on the state of emergency”.
“It reflects… a desire to condition us to living under this regime, hoping that the women and men of this country will forget that the defence of our freedoms is another essential way of fighting terrorism,” the LDH said in a statement last month.