Counterterrorism forces arrested five people Tuesday for suspected involvement in a "jihadist recruitment network" in Lunel, a small town in the south of France where up to 20 residents have fled to Syria to join the Islamic State over the past year.
The special police units also conducted raids in the neighboring villages of Aimargues and Caussiniojouls. According to French daily Le Midi Libre, those arrested are suspected of having ties with six Lunel residents who were killed while fighting along the Syria-Iraq border.
Police launched the three-hour operation at 6am in a cordoned-off neighborhood close to Lunel's church. "Several unmarked police cars showed up," one witness told AFP. "Masked men came out and smashed in the doors to the apartments in the building."
Lunel, which has a population of around 25,000, has often found itself in the headlines since last fall, when French media first reported that up to six men from the town had been killed in Syria. The men were part of a larger group of around 20 people — including women and children — who reportedly left Lunel for Syria in 2014.
Claude Arnaud, Lunel's mayor, told radio network France Info he hoped the sting would provide some answers to the questions surrounding the recent departures to Syria. "The town was being monitored… It's obvious what we need to do: we need to know who is behind these departures," Arnaud said. "Is it an organization? How many of them are there?… This morning's operation begins to answer these questions."
French interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve said during a press conference Tuesday that the people arrested were between the ages of 26 and 44. One had recently returned from Turkey, and another from Syria.
Cazeneuve indicated that those arrested were suspected of "being actively involved in a jihadist recruitment and indoctrination network."
"If the legal authorities confirm the suspects' involvement," he added, "we will have dismantled yet another dangerous and organized network."
Cazeneuve also announced that there are 161 investigations underway in France involving 547 people suspected of involvement with terrorist networks. Of those, 154 have been detained and 90 have been charged.
The interior minister is set to attend an informal European Union council in Riga, the capital of Latvia, in the coming days to discuss internal security matters and the threat of terrorism. Cazeneuve is expected to argue the need for tougher counterterrorism measures similar to a proposal French Prime Minister Manuel Valls unveiled last week.
There has been a significant surge in arrests of suspected terrorists across Europe in the past few weeks. Around the same time that French authorities were carrying out Tuesday's raid in Lunel, Belgian security forces arrested three men in the northwestern town of Kortrijk, six miles from the French border, and found weapons while searching their homes.
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