France deports Islamist militants, imams amid crackdown

France's Interior Minister Claude Gueant speaks to the media after a meeting with representatives of French Muslim Council at the Interior Ministry in Paris March 30, 2012. (REUTERS/Jacky Naegelen)

PARIS: France said on Monday it was deporting five Islamic militants and Muslim preachers in the latest show of strength by President Nicolas Sarkozy as he clamps down on radical elements after seven people were killed by an al Qaeda-inspired gunman last month.

Police commandos arrested suspected Islamic militants in raids on March 30 in several French cities including in the Toulouse region, where a Frenchman of Algerian descent went on a 10-day rampage killing seven people.

The attack turned internal security into a bigger campaign issue ahead of the April 22 election first round and may have improved Sarkozy's chances in a race in which he has lagged Socialist rival Francois Hollande.

Interior Minister Claude Gueant said two people had already been deported on Monday as part of laws aimed at protecting the state and ensuring public security.

"We do not accept Islamic extremism. This is not a new policy ... but after what happened in Toulouse and Montauban we have to be more vigilant than ever," Gueant told BFM TV.

In a statement, Gueant said an Islamist militant of Algerian origin who had previously been sentenced for his role in a 1994 Marrakech terrorist attack, was expelled for renewing ties in radical Islamic movements.

A preacher of Malian origin was deported for promoting antisemitism, advocating the full face veil and rejecting the West.

Imams from Saudi Arabia and Turkey as well as a suspected Tunisian militant, who called for the death of all those who deviate from Islam, are also due to be expelled, the statement said, adding that other expulsions would take place soon.

Sarkozy's firm handling of the response to the shooting spree may improve his chances in the election, although surveys show only 20 percent of voters consider it their main concern as opposed to purchasing power and unemployment.

Polls show that more than 70 percent of voters approved of Sarkozy's handling of the incident, reducing frontrunner Hollande to the role of bystander before the two-round election on April 22 and May 6.

Sarkozy's ratings have inched up. He now stands 1-2 points ahead of Hollande in some polls for the first round but remains 8 points behind his rival in surveys for the run-off.

Police sources said a decision is due on Tuesday on whether to place 17 suspected militants, including the leader of banned radical Islamist group Forsane Alizza (Knights of Pride), under formal investigation.

A police source said 12 of the 17 Islamists held from last week will be put under formal investigation with the rest, including Willy Brigitte - a French Muslim convert convicted in 2007 for planning an attack on an Australian nuclear plant, being released.

The dozen, who all belong or support Forsane Alizza, will be investigated for conspiracy to commit an act of terrorism, according to the police source. The prosecutor will hold a news conference on Tuesday to give more details.

The head of the French intelligence agency, Bernard Squarcini, told La Provence daily in an interview published on Saturday that the suspected militants were planning a kidnapping.





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