The head of France's counterespionage agency says that Islamist radicals detained in a sweep around the country had a stash of arms, did physical training and may have been preparing a kidnapping.
Police continued to question the 17 people Saturday, a day after they were taken into custody in the Paris region, Nantes, Marseille, Nice, and Toulouse, a police official close to the investigation said. He was not authorized to speak publicly about the affair and asked not to be named.
Bernard Squarcini, head of the DCRI counterespionage agency, said in an interview published in the Marseille newspaper La Provence that all those arrested were members of a radical Islamist group banned in late February _ Forsane Alizza, or the Knights of Pride _ which he described as a "veritable danger."
The police sweep came about a week after the death of 23-year-old Frenchman Mohamed Merah, who claimed responsibility for three attacks in Toulouse that killed three paratroopers, a rabbi and three children at a Jewish school. Merah, killed by police after a 32-hour standoff, claimed links to al-Qaida.
Police are searching for possible accomplices of Merah, but Squarcini repeated what authorities have said in the past, that Merah was an "atypical solitary" Islamist who radicalized himself and that the group now under investigation is not linked.
Despite the ban on Forsane Alizza, its members "continued to follow physical training, in parks, in the forest," with some involved in paint ball sessions, Squarcini told La Provence.
"An impressive lot" of Kalashnikov rifles in Marseille was among weapons police uncovered. Other arms recovered in the raids included eight rifles and about eight handguns along with tear gas canisters and a taser, Squarcini said.
"They appeared to be preparing a kidnapping," he said, without providing any details.
The head of Forsane Alizza, Mohammed Achamlane, was among those detained in the Nantes area in western France, where the group was headquartered.
The police official said the detainees include Willy Brigitte, a Muslim convert who was convicted in France in 2007 of "criminal association linked to a terrorist enterprise" and sentenced to nine years in prison. He was freed in 2009 because the time spent in pretrial detention counted toward his prison term.
Brigitte, who had been arrested in Australia and extradited to France in 2003, was detained early Friday in Asnieres, north of Paris, Squarcini said. Brigitte, a Frenchman born in Guadaloupe, had been known to hold training sessions in the Fontainebleau Forest south of Paris before his conviction.
Intelligence officials have been watching the Forsane Alizza group since October, and Squarcini said it was trying to structure itself "in a solid way."
"They wanted to name emirs in each region," said the counterespionage chief.
He brushed aside claims by political adversaries of President Nicolas Sarkozy that the early Friday sweeps _ some filmed by French TV _ were a political move ahead of a presidential election that begins April 22. Polls have consistently shown Sarkozy will lose in the final round on May 6.
Squarcini himself has come under sharp criticism for the police failure to arrest Merah, the Toulouse gunman, before he went on his killing spree. Merah, who had made a trip to Afghanistan and another to the Pakistani tribal region of Waziristan, a militant sanctuary, had been under surveillance.
Squarcini said it was "idiotic" to think that Merah could have been arrested, but in the case of the group now being questioned "we have the demonstration that the threat is real."