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Two inmates under investigation for planning attacks in France

Patrick Kovarik, AFP | The prison of Fresnes, near Paris, on September 20, 2016.

Two radicalised inmates in a French prison have been placed under formal investigation on suspicion of plotting attacks, only days before their expected release from jail, a judicial source said on Tuesday.

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The two men, who were due to be released mid-October after completing sentences for non-terrorist crimes, were known in jail for being radicalised, the source added.

Charles-Henri M., 28 and from Cameroon, and Maxime O., 22 and from France, were taken from their cells in the Fresnes prison, just south of Paris and questioned for over four days before being placed under investigation on charges of criminal association linked with terrorism plans.

French TV station LCI said the men were plotting attacks against jail wardens and police forces, while a source close to the probe said they also had other targets planned. The suspects were planning to use methods including hostage-taking and gun attacks.

Investigators were able to foil the attacks from intelligence gathered outside the prison in late 2016, according to Le Monde newspaper. Searches in the suspects’ prison cells allowed investigators to listen to the men's mobile phone conversations, which alluded to plans to commit attacks in the open air.

“There is no doubt that they were radicalised, and wanted to act, but they were still at the stage of financing their plans,” a judiciary source told Le Monde. The suspects were also in contact with other radicalised inmates and Charles-Henri M., described as a ‘leader’ in prison, was in contact with a jihadist in the Iraq-Syria region.

The arrests highlight the problem of France’s long record of radicalisation in its prisons. “What was revealed last night (Monday) obviously highlights the urgency of the situation,” French Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet told Europe 1 radio on Tuesday, later explaining how the government is tackling the problem.

“We are working very hard on gathering intelligence in prison by creating jobs. It is thanks to these techniques that we were able to see what was being prepared,” she said. “When an inmate arrives, four months are spent assessing his level of danger. Once this has been done, he will either be placed in solitary confinement, or in a high-security area, or in a normal, individual cell,” she added. Three prisons in France, including Fresnes, have set up ‘anti-radicalisation units’.

This is not the first time plans for an attack have been organised inside a prison. Last year, an inmate incarcerated in a radicalisation prevention unit in Osny prison west of Paris tried to kill a prison warden with a knife he made in his cell. Intelligence regarding plans for attacks organised from other prisons have been submitted to the Paris Public Prosecuter’s office in the past, another source told Le Monde.

More than 240 people have been killed in France in attacks since 2015 by assailants who pledged allegiance to, or were inspired by, Islamic State group. Earlier this month, France’s parliament adopted a bill to bolster police surveillance powers against attacks and make it easier to close mosques suspected of preaching hatred. Civil rights groups warned it would lead to personal freedoms being infringed.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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