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European authorities arrest dozens in anti-terror raids

Dozens of suspected jihadists were arrested on Friday as Belgium announced it had broken up a terrorist cell planning to target police and as France pursued fresh leads on finding accomplices in last week's Paris attacks.

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The raids renewed fears about the thousands of young European nationals who may have gone to Syria or Iraq to fight with the Islamic State group or al Qaeda-linked militants before returning to launch attacks on home soil.

Belgian police arrested 13 people in a series of raids, five of whom were later charged with "participating in the activities of a terrorist group", federal prosecutors' spokesman Eric Van der Sijpt told AFP on Friday.

Van der Sijpt told a news conference that the group, some of whom had recently returned from Syria, was "on the verge of carrying out terrorist attacks to kill police officers on public roads and in police stations". Police found four Kalashnikov rifles, explosives, ammunition and communications equipment during the raids, along with police uniforms.

Two other Belgians were arrested in France after allegedly fleeing the raids and were headed towards Italy, police sources said. Belgium has requested their extradition.

Belgian prosecutors said there were no apparent links between the Belgian cell and last week's attacks in Paris that left 17 people dead.

French police separately arrested 12 people overnight and questioned them about "possible logistic support" they may have given to those behind the Paris attacks – brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi, who attacked the Charlie Hebdo offices, and Amedy Coulibaly, who took hostages at a kosher market shortly after shooting dead a policewoman.

The alleged leader of a Turkish-Russian group planning attacks in Syria and another man in charge of financing were arrested in raids on suspected Islamist sites in and around Berlin by more than 200 police officers, German officials said.

Two suspected jihadists were shot dead in a gunbattle with police during an anti-terror raid in the eastern Belgian town of Verviers near the German border on Thursday night.

Security boost

The tide of arrests came as politicians pledged to boost security in the face of what they said was a growing threat from Islamist terror cells.

In a joint press conference following bilateral talks in Washington, US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron vowed to help defeat the threat of cross-border terrorism with better surveillance and stronger cooperation with France and across Europe.

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said he was ready to call up the army to ensure security in the wake of the raids. Michel raised the country's terror alert to level three on a scale of four while Jewish schools in Brussels and the port city of Antwerp were asked to close on Friday.

The raid comes less than a year after four people were shot dead in an attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels. A French national who fought in Syria has been charged with the murders.

With France still reeling from the attacks that targeted its cherished tradition of free speech, US Secretary of State John Kerry laid wreaths on Friday at both the Charlie Hebdo offices and the Jewish supermarket during a visit to Paris in a show of US support.

French President François Hollande meanwhile urged the world to offer a "firm" and "collective" response to the attacks, which drew 1.5 million people into the streets of Paris last Sunday along with dozens of world leaders.

Charlie Hebdo, which angered Muslims in many countries by printing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, laid to rest its editor-in-chief, Stéphane Charbonnier – also known as Charb – on Friday.

Charlie Hebdo's choice to depict the prophet once again on the cover of its first post-attack issue – which sold out soon after its release on Wednesday – sparked renewed anger, with protesters clashing with police outside the French consulate in the Pakistani city of Karachi as well as in Niger and the Malian capital Bamako.

AFP photographer Asif Hassan was shot in the back while covering the Karachi protest but appeared to be out of danger following surgery.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

 

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