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French Arrest 19 Suspected Islamic Militants, Raids To Continue

A hooded French policeman looks outside the window on March 23 as he investigates the flat where self-professed Al-Qaeda militant Mohamed Merah, 23, was living in Toulouse.

A hooded French policeman looks outside the window on March 23 as he investigates the flat where self-professed Al-Qaeda militant Mohamed Merah, 23, was living in Toulouse.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy says police in cities around France have detained at least 19 people in a crackdown on suspected Islamist extremists.

Sarkozy said on French radio that weapons were seized in some of the March 30 raids, including AK-47 assault rifles. The president added that more operations targeting suspected extremist networks are planned.

Reports say the raids occurred in the southern city of Toulouse and in other cities. The Toulouse region is where self-declared Islamist extremist Mohamed Merah is suspected of killing three French soldiers, three Jewish children, and a rabbi earlier this month in three separate shooting incidents.

Merah was killed in a shoot-out with police on March 22. Merah, who was of Algerian origin, was buried in France on March 29.

Sarkozy said the series of attacks had left a "profound trauma" on France. He described the impact of the bloodshed as "a little" like the trauma that hit the United States following the September 11, 2001, attacks in America.

He said the arrests were taking place "on the entire territory" of France.

"It is related to a form of radical Islamism and it's in full compliance with the justice system," Sarkozy said. "What we need to understand is that the traumatism caused by the events of Montauban and Toulouse was profound in our country, a little bit -- and I don't want to compare the horrors -- a little bit like the traumatism that followed the September 11, 2001 events in the United States and in New York.”

Sarkozy is in the midst of a presidential election campaign in which he seeking a second term in office in voting due to start on April 22.

He did not say what those detained were specifically suspected of.

"It's our duty to guarantee the security of the French people," Sarkozy said. "We have no choice. It's absolutely indispensable. And it's the head of state's first duty to protect the French people."

The Toulouse attacks have raised concerns about homegrown radical Islamists carrying out attacks in France.

In the wake of the shootings, Sarkozy has ordered police to review the risk posed by individuals thought to have sympathies or connections to radical Islamist groups.

He also announced plans to make it a crime to repeatedly consult Internet sites advocating Islamic extremism.

Police said the March 30 sweep was "not directly linked" to the killings allegedly carried out by Merah.

Merah had told police he carried out the attacks to avenge the suffering of Palestinian children and to punish the French army for its foreign interventions.

Merah's body was buried near Toulouse after authorities in Algeria, his father's native land, refused to allow a burial there for security reasons.

Also on March 29, France banned several prominent international Muslim clerics from entering France for an Islamic conference.

The foreign and interior ministers in a joint statement said the preachers' "calls for hate and violence" presented a threat to public order.

The organizers of the Islamic conference rejected such a suggestion and said the bans risked deepening Muslims' worries about a backlash.

Based on reporting by AFP

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