PARIS — Police in southern France arrested 12 people in sweeps against suspected Islamic militant networks on Tuesday, including three men being checked for potential links to a network recruiting fighters for Afghanistan, officials said.
The roundups were part of two entirely different counterterrorism cases under investigation by French judges, and fell on the same day only by coincidence, one police official in Paris said.
Firearms were seized in one of the sweeps, another official said.
The arrests came as France and many other European nations have stepped up terrorism alert vigilance amid what has been described as an abstract though heightened threat in recent weeks. The U.S. government warned Americans over the weekend to use caution when traveling in Europe.
In one of the cases, nine suspected Islamic militants were detained in southeastern Marseille and its suburbs, and authorities turned up at least one automatic rifle and a pump gun, the officials said.
In Tuesday's other roundup, two men were arrested in Marseille and another in southwestern Bordeaux on suspected ties to a Frenchman arrested in Naples, Italy, last month accused of links to an Afghan recruiting ring.
A ranking French police official said the man arrested in Naples is a 24 year old from the Paris suburb of Aubervilliers named Ryad Hennouni who had traveled to Afghanistan. The official denied Italian media reports that the young man had a kit to produce bombs, saying material found was insignificant. The official was not authorized to discuss the case publicly so asked not to be named.
"This very morning, police operations were launched in Marseille and Bordeaux that led notably to three arrests directly linked to the fight against terrorism," Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said during a question-and-answer session in parliament's lower house.
However, the police official with knowledge of the case said that by Tuesday evening it appeared that there were no close links between the three – all without police records – and Hennouni, the man arrested in Naples. The three do not appear to be "of major interest," the official said, adding that verifications continued.
Asked about the U.S. travel advisory, Hortefeux said France "has been very attentive and has heard the advisory by American authorities to their nationals" and noted France's strong cooperation with its allies.
A third police official said agents from counterterrorism agency DCRI had detained the suspects in Marseille and Bordeaux over suspected links to a group offering lodging and fake identity papers to Islamic militants looking to come to France.
The DCRI has been leading an investigation of a suspected feeder network of militants headed to the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where Western authorities believe that Osama bin Laden is hiding and which has been a key zone of operation from fighters from Afghanistan's former Taliban regime.
No further information about the arrests Tuesday was immediately available from the police officials, who were not authorized to be publicly named.