PARIS — Anti-terrorist police arrested 11 suspected Islamic militants on Tuesday in swoops in and around Marseille and in Bordeaux after Western governments issued warnings about an elevated terrorism risk in Europe.
France is on high alert after seven hostages, including five French citizens, were kidnapped by the North African wing of al-Qaida last month, and approval by the Senate of a bill to ban full-face veils. The hostages are still being held.
The U.S. State Department on Sunday issued a warning to Americans to exercise caution while in Europe. Also on Sunday, Britain raised its terrorism threat level to high from general for those travelling to Germany and France.
"On such a sensitive, difficult issue, the French government is naturally working hand in hand with our partners, our allies and even further afield," Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux told France's National Assembly, the lower house of Parliament, after the raids had taken place.
In one operation focused on a network supplying false papers for jihadists returning from Afghanistan, police arrested two men in the Mediterranean port of Marseille and a third in the city of Bordeaux in southwest France, the sources said.
The three were linked to a man arrested in the Italian city of Naples and suspected of being connected to al-Qaida militants, they said.
In another operation, eight people were arrested on suspicion of involvement in arms and explosives trafficking, they said. Those arrests took place in a region around Marseille.
In early September, Italian anti-terrorist police arrested a Frenchman suspected of belonging to al-Qaida and capable of securing explosives, Italian sources said on Sunday.
Hortefeux said he had spoken among others to U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano as recently as Monday night and would take stock of the situation again on Thursday with European Union counterparts meeting in Luxembourg.
"Yes there is a terrorist threat at the moment in Europe. It must be neither overestimated nor underestimated," he said.
"Just this morning, police operations were launched in Marseille and Bordeaux which led to arrests directly linked to the anti-terrorist campaign."
French authorities said last month they had received a tip-off that a suicide bomber was preparing an attack on the Paris metro system and Western intelligence sources said they had uncovered plans for a coordinated attack on European cities.
France's threat level remains at red, the second-highest level. Hortefeux told reporters late on Sunday: "We shouldn't be in denial."
The kidnapping in Niger last month of seven employees of French companies Areva and Vinci , including five French citizens, by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, highlighted tensions in the region.
Mali's president last week called for regional cooperation to fight AQIM, but said support from France, the region's main former colonial power, should remain material.
France, where the five-million-strong Muslim community is Europe's largest, last month cleared a final legislative hurdle to becoming the first European country to ban a full-scale veil which an estimated 2,000 Muslim women actually wear, when the Senate approved the ban. The ban on the head-to-toe garment that leaves only the eyes uncovered still has to be vetted by the Constitutional Council, France's highest constitutional authority.
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