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'Syrian accomplice’ told Paris suspect to attack churches

Joel Saget, AFP | François Molins, the prosecutor of Paris, at the press conference on the foiled attack in Paris, on April 22, 2015
3 min

A terror suspect arrested Sunday was planning an attack in France and had been in contact with a presumed accomplice in Syria who ‘told him to target a church’, Paris prosecutor François Molins said in a press conference Wednesday.

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Sid Ahmed Ghlam, a 24-year-old electrical engineering student and an Algerian national, was arrested in Paris on Sunday morning after calling an ambulance. It appears that he had accidentally shot himself in the leg.

After the emergency services alerted police that they were treating a gunshot wound, Ghlam’s car was discovered by following a blood trail.

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Inside the vehicle was an “arsenal” of weapons, Molins said, including handguns, bullet-proof vests and an AK-47 assault rifle.

They also found a laptop and three mobile phones, which Molins said were used to contact an accomplice in Syria “who explicitly asked him to target a church”.

More weapons were found in Ghlam’s flat, as well as “documents in Arabic relating to al Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) group”.

As well as the weapons and documents, police said they had also found magnetic flashing blue lights of the type that police fix to the roofs of unmarked cars, and orange “Police” armbands used by non-uniformed officers.

Ghlam’s DNA was also found in the car of a 32-year-old fitness instructor Aurélie Châtelain who was found dead in Villejuif, a suburb of Paris, on Sunday.

Police believe Ghlam was trying to steal the fitness instructor’s car when he accidentally shot himself, according to French daily Le Monde.

Earlier, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said Ghlam was known to intelligence services for wanting to fight with jihadists in Syria.

‘Catholics of France’ targeted

France has heightened surveillance by police and intelligence agencies since January’s attacks on satirical weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket that left 17 people dead.

An extra 10,000 have since been patrolling sensitive sites, including Jewish schools and synagogues, across France.

“France, like other European countries, is facing a terror threat of an unprecedented nature and amplitude,” Cazeneuve said. “We are maintaining total and constant vigilance.”

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls on Wednesday said “terrorists are targeting France to divide us” but that the country was “determined to stay united”.

Valls visited two churches in Villejuif that were the apparent focus of the foiled plot. He said the suspect planned to target "the Christians, the Catholics of France".

"To target a church is to target a symbol of France, the very essence of France," the prime minister said, adding that this was “the first time” Christians were specifically targeted by suspected jihadists in France.

Valls said his government would take appropriate measures to guarantee the safety of worshippers and church visitors.

“France has an exceptional Christian heritage – its cathedrals, churches and chapels attract tourists and pilgrims,” he said. “This heritage must be protected but also remain open.”

 

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