By Brian Love
PARIS (Reuters) - French police have foiled a plot to build a bomb similar to the one planted by an Algerian Islamist group that killed eight people on a Paris subway train in 1995, a public prosecutor said on Thursday.
Police rounded up 12 people in raids on Saturday and another suspect was shot dead after he fired at police with a revolver.
"Investigators rapidly unearthed very worrying details on the state of planning progress," said prosecutor Francois Molins.
Seven of the 12 have been placed under official inquiry on suspicion of terrorist activity. The five others were being released, he told a news conference.
The seven placed under official inquiry were suspected of taking part in terrorist activities and two were also suspected of playing a role in seeking volunteers to join Jihadi missions abroad, including to Syria, said Molins.
"I am not making comparisons but simply highlighting that in terms of danger and preparations - notably all the materials that were set to be part of the explosive device - we've not seen a similar case in French judicial police records since 1996," he said.
The 1995 attack was followed by a similar attack in 1996 in which two people were killed, taking the combined death toll to 10 and the number of injured to about 200.
Molins said the police operation had dismantled what he called "a terrorist group that is probably the most dangerous (seen in France) since 1996".
Islamist groups angry at French foreign policy in Afghanistan, the Middle East and Africa have carried out a number of attacks in France in recent years. Mohamed Merah, a young al Qaeda-inspired gunman, killed seven people including three Jewish children in southwestern France in March.
Police moved in on the suspects after an attack in late September on a kosher food shop north of Paris.
Molins said that attack, using what he described as an M75 grenade of the kind made in the former Yugoslavia, was intended to kill, even if nobody died.
MILITANTS COULD HAVE "MANY MOTIVES"
Follow-up surveillance of the suspects triggered Saturday's police raids in the southern city of Cannes, in Strasbourg in eastern France and in Torcy, a eastern suburb of Paris where the police found a garage packed with bomb-making materials.
Along with a shotgun, rifle, 800 bullet rounds and cash, police found a large quantity of potassium nitrate, sulphur, five meters of cable, alarm clocks, headlamp bulbs and a pressure cooker that could serve as a bomb casing.
"It's exactly the same kind of device as was used in 1995 by GIA militants," Molins said, referring to the Algerian-based Groupe Islamique Arme, or Armed Islamic Group in English.
President Francois Hollande said Islamist extremists would not be tolerated. "We will not let up on them, they will be hunted down," he said in an interview on TV news channel France 24.
One of the two suspected of recruiting jihadists had made trips to Egypt and Tunisia, a former French colony, spending three months away from France with the man who was killed in the weekend raids, Molins said.
Analysts say militants could have many motives for staging attacks in France.
"The terror threat in France is extremely high because it comes in multiple forms," Roland Jacquard, president of the International Terrorism Observatory, said.
"You have Pakistan-Afghanistan connections that stem from old al Qaeda networks, internal groups that have self-radicalized, al Qaeda in Islamic Magreb, and French intelligence services are also worried about violent terrorist reaction as a result of France's hard stance on Syria and Iran," he said.
(Additional reporting by John Irish and Nicholas Vinocur; Editing by Alexandria Sage and Robert Woodward)