French Police Arrest 19 Suspected Islamists, Seize Weapons

In a continuing display of firmness against terrorism, President Nicolas Sarkozy announced Friday that police had rounded up 19 Islamic activists and discovered several assault rifles in early-morning raids in Paris and two other French cities.

Masked special forces police escort a member of the Islamist community under heavy guard in Coueron, near Nantes, March 30, 2012.

PARIS — In a continuing display of firmness against terrorism, President Nicolas Sarkozy announced Friday that police had rounded up 19 Islamic activists and discovered several assault rifles in early-morning raids in Paris and two other French cities.

The raids, carried out by paramilitary anti-terrorism commandos, were part of a crackdown imposed by Sarkozy after a young French extremist of Algerian origin, Mohammed Merah, assassinated seven people between March 11 and 19 in the Toulouse region and then himself was killed March 22 in a shootout with commandos.

Sarkozy’s show of determination against Islamic extremism has been criticized as a calculation to boost his standing in the campaign for a two-round presidential election scheduled April 22 and May 6. Sarkozy, who is running for a second five-year term, has begun to pull even with his main adversary, Francois Hollande of the Socialist Party, after months of trailing in the polls. But he faces attacks for being lax on immigration from the ultra-right Nationalist Front candidate, Marine Le Pen.

Immediately after Merah was slain, Sarkozy announced he would propose a new panoply of anti-terrorism laws for swift enactment, including a provision that would make looking at extremist Islamist Web sites a crime. Since then, however, his aides have pointed out that parliament has suspended work pending the election campaign, putting the proposals into doubt, and others have raised doubts about the constitutionality of such a law.

Sarkozy, in a radio interview, said the 19 taken into custody Friday were not directly linked to the Toulouse killings but were part of “a form of radical Islam” that would not be tolerated in France. He did not say what laws they had violated but suggested at least some of them would be expelled and specified that the raids were carried out “in full accord with the justice system.”

“What happened this morning is going to continue,” Sarkozy added. “There will be other operations that will continue and that will allow us to expel from the national territory people who have no business being here.”

With police cooperation, some of the arrests were filmed by television cameras for broadcast on news programs.

Interior Ministry officials told French reporters that those taken into custody were part of an outlawed group called Forsan al-Izza, which was centered in the Nantes area but has followers in the Toulouse and Paris regions.

The raids followed Thursday’s announcement that the government would refuse visas to four Islamic preachers invited to a convention of the Union of Islamic Organizations of France, which French officials described as sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood. The four were identified as Adrima Sabri, a Palestinian; Ayad bin Abdallah al-Qarni and Abdallah Basar, Saudi Arabians; and Sawfat al-Hijazi, an Egyptian.

“The positions and statements of these people, who call for hatred and violence, seriously undermine the principles of the republic in the current context, raising a strong risk of troubling public order,” said a joint communique from the Foreign and Interior ministries.

In addition, two other invitees canceled plans to attend after it was made clear they were unwelcome. They were Youssef Qaradawi, a renowned Egyptian preacher who resides in Qatar and appears regularly on Al-Jazeera television, and Mahmoun al-Masri, an Egyptian.

A seventh preacher and theologian whom officials characterized as undesirable, Tariq Ramadan, has Swiss nationality and thus could not be banned under European Union accords with Switzerland. It was unclear whether he planned to attend.

Sarkozy said he had called the emir of Qatar personally to ask that Qaradawi be prevented from coming to France, adding: “This gentleman is not welcome in the territory of the republic.”

Merah, meanwhile, was buried Thursday in an informal ceremony in Toulouse suburbs attended by several dozen young people but without his family. His father had sought to have his corpse transported to Algeria for burial in the family village but the Algerian government refused to accept it.