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Girlfriend of Trèbes supermarket gunman placed under formal investigation

Eric Cabanis, AFP | French members of the Research and Intervention Brigade (BRI) secure the area during a search operation at the Ozanam housing estate in Carcassonne, southwestern France, on March 23, 2018.

French investigators placed the 18-year-old girlfriend of the Islamist gunman who killed four people last week in southern France under formal investigation on Monday.

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Being placed under "formal investigation" in France indicates that magistrates have found sufficient evidence of wrongdoing that an investigation can go forward, possibly to trial.

The woman, whom FRANCE 24 is declining to identify, told investigators that she converted to Islam when she was 16. She was on a watchlist of potential radicals but denied "having been informed of or associated with the deadly plans of her boyfriend", Paris Prosecutor François Molins told a news conference on Tuesday.

Molins said the girl posted online a Koran verse "indicating that infidels were promised to hell" just a few hours before the attacks in Carcassone and Trèbes. He told reporters that she shouted "Allahu Akbar" (God is greatest) while in custody and "shows all the signs of radicalisation".

Terror in Trèbes

Redouane Lakdim, a 25-year-old Moroccan-born French national who was on a watchlist of suspected extremists, killed a butcher and an elderly shopper when he stormed the Super U supermarket in Trèbes after firing at a group of off-duty police and shooting dead a man when hijacking a car in the nearby town of Carcassonne.

Policeman Arnaud Beltrame was the fourth person killed during Lakdim's rampage. He agreed to swap himself for a hostage inside the supermarket but was then killed by Lakdim, who slit his throat.

"He (Beltrame) raised his hands in the air, dropped his weapon and asked to take the place of the person taken hostage," Molins said.

Beltrame's mother Nicole said she was not surprised that her 44-year-old son offered to be swapped for a woman held hostage.

"I know Arnaud: loyal, altruistic, and since he was small, working for other people, committed to the country," she said, adding that the practising Catholic would have wanted his act to make people "a bit more tolerant".

During the siege Lakdim said he was acting on behalf of the Islamic State group and demanded the release of Salah Abdeslam, the prime suspect in the November 2015 Paris terror attacks.

Summoned for questioning

Lakdim had been summoned by anti-terror police for questioning shortly before his shooting rampage, a police source told AFP on Tuesday.

The police source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that Lakdim had been sent a letter in March asking him to arrange a face-to-face meeting with agents from France's domestic intelligence agency, the Direction générale de la sécurité intérieure or DGSI.

A 17-year-old friend of Lakdim's was meanwhile released on Monday "due to the absence of incriminating evidence at this stage", prosecutors said.

President Emmanuel Macron will lead a national commemoration on Wednesday for Beltrame, who is being hailed as a hero.

>> Arnaud Beltrame: the French policeman who 'fell as a hero'

Lakdim had been on a list of suspected extremists since 2014 and was being monitored, leading some politicians to criticise the security services for their failure to foresee and prevent the attack.

The fact that Lakdim was on France's terror watchlist has also led to accusations from the right and far-right that Macron's government is too soft on Islamists, while far-right leader Marine Le Pen has called for Interior Minister Gérard Collomb to resign.

The government hit back at the criticism on Tuesday.

"Those who say ignorantly that this attack could have been avoided, those who promise people zero risk – I say to them, these people bear a heavy responsibility in speaking so casually," Prime Minister Édouard Philippe told parliament.

He rejected right-wing proposals to impose an outright ban on ultra-conservative Salafist Islam or to "preemptively" detain the most radicalised Islamists.

France already has "a legal arsenal" to "understand, monitor and sanction" extremists, Philippe said.

Experts point out that France has around 20,000 people suspected of being Islamic extremists and security forces have been successful in thwarting a series of attacks in recent years, thanks in part to tough new anti-terror laws.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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