Paris commuters and tourists have been put on edge after a series of bomb threats resulted in evacuations at the Eiffel Tower and train stations including Gare Saint-Lazare.
The Eiffel Tower was evacuated last night, for the second time this month, on a bomb threat that turned out to be false. The St-Lazare railway and metro station was cleared on Sept. 27, following a Sept. 14 evacuation of St-Michel station on the city’s Left Bank. France is on “red alert,” with 3,400 police and 800 soldiers deployed to “sensitive” locations, Prime Minister Francois Fillon said in a statement yesterday.
“These false alarms are a consequence of the mediatisation of the terrorist threat,” said Jean-Luc Marret, head of research at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris.
Officials of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government have recently signaled an elevated risk of attacks. French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said this month that “in the last few days, several events remind us that we find ourselves in a period that demands greater vigilance, particularly against the risk of terrorist attacks.”
Sky News reported yesterday that intelligence agencies intercepted a terror plot targeting London and other cities in the U.K, France and Germany. The plot, by militants based in Pakistan, was at an “advanced but not imminent stage” and had been tracked by spy agencies “for some time,” Sky said.
Soldiers carrying automatic guns are an increasingly visible presence at major train stations, from Montparnasse to Versailles. At the Eiffel Tower yesterday, a call to the tower’s operator, later traced to a telephone booth near the monument, warned that a bomb had been placed on the premises, a Paris police spokeswoman said.
The threat to France of terrorism “has never been higher,” Bernard Squarcini, the head of the DCRI domestic intelligence agency, told the Journal de Dimanche this month. “Our country, because of its history, because of its engagement in Afghanistan...is an object of very special interest for certain radical Islamic movements.”
Five French citizens are currently being held hostage in Niger after a Sept. 16 kidnapping. Al Qaeda in the Maghreb, a terror group that operates in the southern Sahara, has claimed responsibility for the hostage-taking, prompting the French government to send reconnaissance planes to the region and says it’s willing to negotiate.
The hostages, five workers from Vinci SA’s Satom subsidiary and one Areva SA employee and his wife, were kidnapped Sept. 16 in Arlit, near a uranium mine in northern Niger, the companies have said. Five of the hostages are French, one is Togolese, and one Madagascan.
Opposition political leaders have suggested the government is exaggerating the threat of terrorism to bolster support. Former Socialist presidential candidate Segolene Royal last week said government officials’ warnings included “stagecraft” that coincides with national protests over Sarkozy’s plan to raise France’s retirement age.
Paris police have received 31 calls regarding bomb threats so far this year, compared with 39 in 2009, according to the Prefecture de Police.
Still, France has faced terrorist attacks in the past. Eight people died in an attack on the commuter-train station at St-Michel by Algerian militants in 1995.
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