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France Deploys Flagship Aircraft Carrier to Intensify Air Strikes Against Islamic State

  • RFE/RL

French fighter jets launched their biggest raids in Syria to date targeting the Islamic State's stronghold in Raqqa, November 15, 2015.

French fighter jets launched their biggest raids in Syria to date targeting the Islamic State's stronghold in Raqqa, November 15, 2015.

France's president ordered the country’s flagship aircraft carrier to the eastern Mediterranean as Paris moved to intensify a bombing campaign against Islamic State militants in Syria in the wake of last week’s terrorist attack in the French capital.

Francois Hollande also said the United States and Russia should set aside their differences and join forces to fight Islamic State militants.

Hollande’s comments on November 16 came after French police carried out more than 150 raids on suspected Islamists nationwide. In Belgium, commandos besieged a home in Brussels but failed to find a key suspect in the deadliest terror attack in Europe since 2004.

The November 13 assaults on night clubs, restaurants, a soccer stadium, and other locations killed 129 people dead and wounded hundreds more. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility, though U.S. and European intelligence agencies have not confirmed that.

"France is at war. But we're not engaged in a war of civilizations, because these assassins do not represent any,” Hollande said. “We are in a war against jihadist terrorism which is threatening the whole world."

French warplanes on November 15 hit targets in Raqqa, the jihadists' de facto capital in northern Syria. In the biggest raid since the French first joined the international coalition in late September, 10 fighter bombers dropped 20 bombs on an Islamic State command post and training center.

Hollande said he ordered the nuclear-powered Charles de Gaulle to the waters off Syria. The vessel, the flagship of the French navy, will take a few days to reach its destination, near Syria or Lebanon.

With 26 fighter jets on board, the carrier will dramatically increase France's capacity to carry out air strikes, and adds to the 12 French planes currently stationed in the United Arab Emirates and Jordan overall.

French police conducted 168 raids overnight, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said on November 16. He said there have been 23 arrests in the wake of the attacks, and that 104 people are under house arrest. Police said an arsenal of weapons had been seized.

Belgian Raids

In neighboring Belgium, federal prosecutors said on November 16 that two people detained two days earlier were being held on terrorism charges related to their possible role in the Paris attacks, though no details about the suspects was given.

The two individuals face charges of leading a terrorist attack and participating in the activities of a terrorist organization, Reuters reported.

Heavily armed Belgian police also carried out an operation in Molenbeek, an impoverished Brussels neighborhood that has been a hotbed of Islamist militancy. Prosecutors said the search did not result in evidence and that no one was arrested.

Armed special forces arrive at the scene during a house search in the Molenbeek district of Brussels, November 16, 2015

Armed special forces arrive at the scene during a house search in the Molenbeek district of Brussels, November 16, 2015

Police said the operation was related to the Paris attacks and to the search for Saleh Abdeslam, a 26-year-old French citizen who is wanted under an international arrest warrant.

Belgian broadcaster RTBF said one person was detained but it was not Abdeslam.

Western news agencies reported that French officials identified the suspected mastermind of the Paris attacks as Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Belgian who is believed to have also been linked to thwarted attacks on a Paris-bound high-speed train in August and a Paris area church in April.

The child of Moroccan immigrants, Abaaoud grew up in Molenbeek and was once a seemingly carefree student at a prestigious Brussels high school. But he became a zealous Islamist militant and once recruited his 13-year-old brother to join him in Syria, the Associated Press reported. He is in his 20s.

French prosecutors said they have identified five of the seven suspected suicide attackers. Four were French, they said, and the fifth was stopped and fingerprinted in Greece in October and may have been Syrian.

Earlier on November 16, the final day of a three-day mourning period in France, Hollande joined a crowd of Sorbonne university students during a moment of silence, which was also observed at schools and businesses across the country.

Crowds gathered at a makeshift monument at Republique Plaza, in a neighborhood targeted by the attacks, where a banner reads "Can't Scare Us."

The terror attacks were the deadliest in Europe since the 2004 train bombings in Madrid that killed 191 people and injured 350. The seven attackers in the Paris assaults died: six after detonating suicide belts; one in a shootout with police.

In his remarks to lawmakers meeting in a rare joint sitting of parliament, Hollande called for prolonging the state of emergency and pass constitutional amendments allowing dual nationals to be stripped of their French citizenship if they are convicted of terrorism and bar them from entering France if they are deemed a "terrorism risk."

He also called for cooperation between the United States and Russia in battling the radical militants who have seized large chunks of territory in Syria and Iraq.

"We must combine our forces to achieve a result that is already too late in coming," Hollande said.

U.S.-Russian tensions are high as Washington has accused Moscow of targeting moderate Syrian rebel groups, rather than Islamic State targets, something Russia has denied.

Emboldened militants threatened more attacks against the West. A video released by the radical Islamist group said no country would be spared, and specifically warned it would attack the United States and "conquer" Rome.

Islamic State militants earlier claimed responsibility for the crash of a Russian passenger jet in Egypt on October 31, in which all 224 aboard died, аnd on November 12, twin suicide bombings that killed 43 people in Beirut.

G20 Summit

World leaders meeting for a two-day G20 summit in Turkey focused on the threat from Islamic State and other extremist groups, vowing steps to cut off terrorist financing and share intelligence but departing with few signs of a major change of strategy.

With the Paris attacks igniting calls for a crackdown on migrants streaming into Europe from Syria and other war-torn states, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that the migration crisis must not be conflated with the terrorist threat.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said the Paris attacks showed that Russia's previous calls for closer unity against terrorism were justified.

"I spoke of this at a UN session" in late September, Putin said at the summit. "This is what I spoke of, and the tragic events which have followed this have only confirmed our rightness."

Putin and President Barack Obama huddled on the sidelines of the G20 summit on November 15. A senior Putin adviser said differences over the "tactics" in the fight against Islamic State persisted.

US President Barack Obama (L) talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and U.S. security advisor Susan Rice (2nd L) prior to the opening session of the Group of 20 (G20) Leaders summit summit in the Mediterranean resort city of Antalya.

US President Barack Obama (L) talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and U.S. security advisor Susan Rice (2nd L) prior to the opening session of the Group of 20 (G20) Leaders summit summit in the Mediterranean resort city of Antalya.

Russia launched its air campaign in Syria in late September, а campaign that Western nations say is mainly aimed at shoring up President Bashar al-Assad's government.

Obama, meanwhile, rejected calls for a shift in U.S. strategy and said Republican U.S. lawmakers who want to send ground troops fail to understand the potential consequences.

"Folks want to pop off and have opinions about what they think they would do," Obama told reporters at a news conference at the conclusion of the two-day summit. "If they think that somehow their advisers are better than the chairman of my Joint Chiefs of Staff and the folks who are actually on the ground, I want to meet them. And we can have that debate."

British Prime Minister David Cameron said that the "enormous" gap between "those of us who believe Assad should go immediately and those, like President Putin, who have been supporting and continue to support him" has been reduced. He added: "I hope we can close the gap still further but it will need compromise on both sides."


With reporting by AP, Reuters, AFP, and dpa

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