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France: Police Frustrate Terrorist Threats In Advance Of World Cup

Prague, 27 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Two weeks before the World Cup soccer matches are due to get underway in France (June 10), French police and police in four other West European nations have rounded up almost 90 people --most of them of North African origin-- suspected of belonging to Islamic terrorist networks.

Officials in all the countries participating in yesterday's synchronized dawn raids indicated they were aimed at frustrating attempts at terrorist violence during the month-long tournament, which is sure to be viewed on television by hundreds of millions of people before it ends on July 12. About a half million foreign fans and 1.5 million French ticket-holders will be traveling around the country among the World Cup's 10 separate venues. Thirty-two teams will play 64 matches under the watchful eyes of an 1,800-strong French security force.

French officials said that the anti-terrorist operation, probably the biggest ever mounted on the continent, was approved in principle by ministers from France, Belgium, Germany, Italy and Switzerland at a meeting last month in Naples. Last week in Paris, it was planned in detail at meetings among officials from all the participating nations. The entire action was coordinated by France's top anti-terrorist investigating magistrate, Jean Louis Bruguiere.

Closer cooperation between national polices has been discussed by the leaders of the 15 European Union member states at their last two summit meetings. It was also on the agenda of the recent summit of the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations plus Russia in Birmingham, England. But, while praising yesterday's collective action, some French officials (unnamed) openly regretted that Scandinavian countries known to have admitted suspected Algerian terrorists chose n-o-t to take part in the raids.

In a statement yesterday, the French Interior Ministry said the action was taken after what it described as "several months of surveillance" had led police to suspect that terrorists linked to Algeria's Armed Islamic Group were preparing violent actions during the World Cup games. In March, Belgian police arrested eight Algerians alleged to be GIA members in Brussels and the southern city of Charleroi and said that match schedules and other World-Cup materials had been confiscated. Two weeks ago, a bomb made from a gas canister was defused outside an electric company in a northeast Paris district. Police said it was similar to bombs used in a series of 1995 terrorist attacks in Paris blamed on the GIA that killed eight people and wounded about 170 others.

The GIA, Algeria's most radical Islamic group, is widely considered to be responsible for thousands --possibly tens of thousands-- of murders during the civil and religious war that has raged in the country for the past six years and cost the lives of up to 90,000 people. Its suspected chief in Algeria, Hassan Hattab, is said to want again to "export" the war to Europe in order to help him install strict Muslim rule at home. French and German officials say that they have detained four men --two in each country-- considered to be among Hattab's chief lieutenants. Magistrate Bruguiere flew to Germany last night to question the two suspected Hattab aides there.

At the same time in France, Interior Minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement went on state television to warn, in his words, that the country was "entering a 45-day period when vigilance must be extraordinary." He said yesterday's raids had broken up what he estimated to be "at least three" terrorist networks that were intended to supply logistical support for bombings by Algerian terrorists in France. But he added that even tighter security measures would be taken in France within the next few days. And noting that the bomb defused in Paris a fortnight ago had been signaled to police by a visiting foreigner, Chevenement called on all people --French and non-French alike-- to report any suspicious object by calling the French police emergency number, 17.

In what can only be called Gallic comic relief to the serious terrorist threat, four different groups of French workers yesterday took steps to exploit the World Cup to realize parochial objectives.

First, low-paid truck drivers who have tied up the country for weeks twice in the past two years staged a one-day "snail" protest, but indicated they would likely hold off further action for higher pay until September. Then well-paid pilots for the government-owned Air France airline --which bills itself as the Cup's "official carrier"-- indicated they would take up the slack. The pilots said that, in protest over recent salary reductions, they would begin a two-week strike action Monday (June 1) that could paralyze the country in the run-up to the World Cup. The pilots were later joined by some reasonably paid train-drivers, who said they were considering a strike during the Cup that would disrupt traffic in and around the Paris area, where France has built its new show-case Stade de France stadium.

Addressing both groups today, French Transport Minister Jean-Claude Gayssot --one of three Communist ministers in the Socialist-led Left Government-- appealed for reason from those planning the strikes. He said that they risked what he termed "spoiling the image of France when the whole world will be watching."

Finally, several hundred unionized police officers seeking a bonus for their work at the soccer matches and other benefits last evening began occupying the offices of the official French World Cup Organizing Committee. The protesting policemen said, in their words, that it was "better to negotiate before the event rather than after." They recalled they had still not received a bonus promised to them for extra work during last Summer's Paris visit by Pope John Paul II. This morning, one respected French commentator --Alain Duhamel on Europe Number One radio-- called the policemen's action "a bad joke ".