France to probe 'jihadist' bungle


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French police walk outside the police station in Lodeve as three alleged Islamic jihadist militants are readied to be escorted to the city of Montpellier on September 24, 2014. Photo: AFP French police walk outside the police station in Lodeve as three alleged Islamic jihadist militants are readied to be escorted to the city of Montpellier on September 24, 2014. Photo: AFP
France's interior minister on Wednesday announced a probe into a series of blunders that saw three suspected jihadists waltz out of a French airport after being transferred from Turkish custody.
Authorities were left red-faced after an announcement they had arrested the three men at a Paris airport turned out to be false.
To make matters worse, it emerged the suspected French extremists had been put on a different plane entirely to the southern city of Marseille, where they were -- to their apparent surprise -- able to walk freely from the airport on Tuesday.
In another snag, passport control failed to flag the men as suspicious, as a security databank was out of order at the time.
The government was however spared further blushes from the fiasco as the men handed themselves over to police on Wednesday -- nearly a day later.
They were due to appear before an anti-terrorist judge.
"There was clearly a massive bungle but it was in large part due to ... the absence of proper collaboration with Turkish authorities," Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told France Info radio.
Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve told journalists he had called for an administrative inquiry to "get to the bottom of what happened".
He said he would also soon visit Turkey to avoid a repeat of the "malfunction".
In a speech to parliament, Prime Minister Manuel Valls said: "This affair did not unfold as it should have."
'Incredible ... but true'
The trio included the 29-year-old brother-in-law of Toulouse jihadist Mohamed Merah, who was shot dead by police after he murdered seven people, including three children, in a 2012 killing spree.
A 27-year-old man previously convicted over terrorism-related charges and links to a jihadist group, was also one of the three arrested in Turkey.
The interior ministry claimed that after the pilot of the Paris-bound flight refused to allow them on board the Turkish authorities put them on the flight to Marseille.
But it insisted that Paris did not become aware of the last-minute change of plan until after the men had landed on French soil.
One of the trio's lawyers, Pierre Dunac, said the men were not questioned when they landed. "As incredible as it might seem, it's true."
The debacle came as France was juggling several extremist threats, with a tourist taken hostage and threatened with execution in Algeria and Islamic State jihadists calling for Muslims to kill French citizens. Hundreds of French citizens meanwhile are leaving to fight in Iraq and Syria.
On Friday, France conducted its first air strikes in Iraq against IS.
"We will not be intimidated," Valls said. "We will not fail, we will not tremble. In the face of threats, in the face of blackmail, France will not yield."
'Several attacks foiled'
Critics of an already deeply unpopular government seized on the blunder, saying the jihadists had "made us the laughing stock of the world".
"So we can send planes to Iraq but we can't control our own borders?" said Christian Estrosi, a former government minister with the conservative opposition UMP.
The government hit back, praising security and intelligence services for their work in battling the terrorist threat at home in recent months, notably in countering the recruitment of fighters for Syria.
The prospect of these fighters returning to stage attacks on home soil has France on high alert. Valls said that of 580 French citizens who had gone to fight in Syria, 189 had already come home.
The prime minister said several would-be jihadists, including children, had been blocked from leaving the country, and "several planned attacks" in France foiled.
The three men, suspected of being part of a network that recruited jihadists for Syria, handed themselves over to police in the southwestern city of Toulouse.
One of the three, Imad Jebali, "told us by phone that the pressure was too great," said Pierre Le Bonjour, another lawyer for the suspects.
"Clearly from the start... our clients showed a willingness to explain themselves to police and justice officials," he said.
After Merah's death, it emerged that he had visited Pakistan and Afghanistan prior to his attacks and had been on the radar of French intelligence, who had gravely underestimated the threat he posed.

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