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TERRORISM

Jihadists escape as cops wait at wrong airport

Confusion reigned Tuesday over the whereabouts of three suspected French jihadists arrested in Turkey who include the brother-in-law of Toulouse killer Mohammed Merah after an apparent bungle by authorities.

Jihadists escape as cops wait at wrong airport
Three suspected jihadists escaped after French cops waited for them at the wrong airport. Photo: Doh!: Shutterstock

France's interior minister on Wednesday announced a wide-ranging probe into a series of blunders that saw three suspected jihadists waltz out of a French airport after being transferred from Turkish custody.

Authorities were left red-faced after an announcement they had arrested the three men at a Paris airport turned out to be false.

To make matters worse, it emerged the suspected French jihadists had been put on a different plane entirely to the southern city of Marseille, where they were — to their apparent surprise — able to walk freely from the airport on Tuesday.

In another snag, passport control failed to flag the men as suspicious, as a security databank was out of order at the time.

The government was however spared further blushes from the fiasco as the men handed themselves over to police on Wednesday — nearly a day later.

They were due to appear before an anti-terrorist judge.

"There was clearly a massive bungle but it was in large part due to … the absence of proper collaboration with Turkish authorities," Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told France Info radio.

Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve told journalists he had called for an administrative enquiry to "get to the bottom of what happened."

He said he would also soon visit Turkey to avoid a repeat of the "malfunction."

'Incredible … but true' 

The trio included the 29-year-old brother-in-law of Toulouse jihadist Mohamed Merah, who was shot dead by police after he murdered seven people, including three children, in a 2012 killing spree.

A 27-year-old previously convicted over terrorism-related charges and links to a jihadist group, was also one of the three arrested in Turkey.

The interior ministry claimed that after the pilot of the Paris-bound flight refused to allow them on board the Turkish authorities put them on the flight to Marseille.

But it insisted that Paris did not become aware of the last-minute change of plan until after the men had landed on French soil.

One of the trio's lawyers, Pierre Dunac, said the men were not questioned when they landed. "As incredible as it might seem, it's true."

The debacle came as France was juggling several extremist threats: Hundreds of citizens leaving to fight in Iraq and Syria, a national taken hostage and threatened with execution in Algeria and Islamic State jihadists calling for Muslims to kill French citizens.

On Friday, France conducted its first air strikes in Iraq against IS.   

"France is not afraid," Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve insisted this week, vowing the country was fully prepared to deal with any threat on home soil.

'Laughing stock' 

Critics of an already deeply unpopular government seized on the blunder, saying the jihadists had "made us the laughing stock of the world."

"So we can send planes to Iraq but we can't control our own borders?" said Christian Estrosi, a former government minister with the conservative opposition UMP.

The three men were thought to have been arrested in Turkey on suspicion of being part of a network that recruited jihadists for Syria.

They handed themselves over to police in the south-western city of Toulouse.   

One of the three, Imad Jebali, "told us by phone that the pressure was too great," said Pierre Le Bonjour, another lawyer for the suspects.

"Clearly from the start… our clients showed a willingness to explain themselves to police and justice officials," he said. "We could only agree that it was the right thing to do."    

French authorities are wary about nationals who have travelled to Syria and Iraq — where the radical Islamic State group occupies large areas — and may return to their home country to stage attacks.

After Mohamed Merah's death, it emerged that he had visited Pakistan and Afghanistan prior to his attacks and had been on the radar of French intelligence, who had gravely underestimated the threat he posed.

Cazeneuve said in June that his sister Souad had gone to Syria. According to a source close to the case, she is currently in Algeria after having left Syria.

In Cazeneuve's view, around 930 French citizens or residents, including at least 60 women, are either actively engaged in jihad in Iraq and Syria or are planning to go.

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TERRORISM

US vice president lays wreaths at site of 2015 Paris terror attacks

US Vice President Kamala Harris and French Prime Minister Jean Castex laid wreaths at a Paris cafe and France's national football stadium Saturday six years since deadly terror attacks that left 130 people dead.

US vice president lays wreaths at site of 2015 Paris terror attacks
US Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff lay flowers after ceremonies at Le Carillon bar and Le Petit Cambodge restaurant, at which 130 people were killed during the 2015 Paris terror attacks. Photo: Sarahbeth Maney/POOL/AFP

The attacks by three separate teams of Islamic State group jihadists on the night of November 13, 2015 were the worst in France since World War II.

Gunmen mowed down 129 people in front of cafes and at a concert hall in the capital, while a bus driver was killed after suicide bombers blew themselves up at the gates of the stadium in its suburbs.

Harris, wrapping up a four-day trip to France, placed a bouquet of white flowers in front of a plaque honouring the victims outside a Paris cafe.

Castex attended a minute of silence at the Stade de France football stadium, along with Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, before laying wreaths at the sites of the other attacks inside Paris.

In front of the Bataclan concert hall, survivors and relatives of the victims listened to someone read out the names of each of the 90 people killed during a concert there six years ago.

Public commemorations of the tragedy were called off last year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Last year we weren’t allowed to come and we all found it really tough,” said Bruno Poncet, who made it out alive of the Bataclan.

But he said the start of a trial over the attacks in September meant that those attending the commemoration this year felt more united.

‘Overcome it all’

“We’ve really bonded thanks to the trial,” he said. “During previous commemorations, we’d spot each other from afar without really daring to speak to each other. We were really shy. But standing up in court has really changed everything.”

The marathon trial, the biggest in France’s modern legal history, is expected to last until May 2022.

Twenty defendants are facing sentences of up to life in prison, including the sole attacker who was not gunned down by police, Salah Abdeslam, a French-Moroccan national who was captured in Brussels. Six of the defendants are being tried in absentia.

Poncet said he felt it was crucial that he attend the hearings. “I can’t possibly not. It’s our lives that are being discussed in that room, and it’s important to come to support the others and to try to overcome it all.”

Survivors have taken to the witness stand to recount the horror of the attacks, but also to describe life afterwards.

Several said they had been struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, grappling with survivor’s guilt, or even feeling alienated from the rest of society.

Saturday’s commemorations are to wrap up with a minute of silence at the Stade de France in the evening before the kick-off for a game between France and Kazakhstan.

It was during a football match between France and Germany that three suicide bombers blew themselves up in 2015.

Then-French president Francois Hollande was one of the 80,000 people in the crowd, before he was discreetly whisked away to avoid triggering mass panic.

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