France blames Turkey for 'jihadi' arrest fiasco

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image captionFrance has stepped up anti-terrorist patrols in face of the crisis in Syria and Iraq

A senior French minister has criticised Turkey after plans to arrest suspected jihadis returning from Syria collapsed when they were put on the wrong flight.

As security agents waited at a Paris airport, the three suspects were flown to Marseille in southern France, where they left the airport unchallenged.

French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said there had been a "mix-up".

The three suspects have now handed themselves in to police in southern France.

Two of them are linked to Islamist mass killer Mohamed Merah, who died in a police siege in 2012.

The three men are believed to belong to a jihadist recruiting network and are considered dangerous by the French security services, French media report.

Imad Djebali, a childhood friend of Merah, was jailed for four years for terrorism in 2009 while Abdelouahed Baghdali, who is married to Merah's sister Souad, is known to police for his links to an Islamist school.

The third man, Gael Maurize, is known to French intelligence for his "implication in a jihadist network", French media say.

According to Le Monde newspaper, the three left for Syria in February to join the Islamic State (IS) group but became disillusioned and surrendered to Turkish border police at the end of August, asking to be repatriated to France. They were detained for three weeks for "violations of the right to abode".

'Nobody in'

On Tuesday, the captain of the plane due to fly the three men from Istanbul to Paris refused to allow them aboard because they lacked the necessary Turkish documents.

Instead, Turkish police put them on the next flight to France, bound for Marseille, without informing their colleagues in France, Le Monde reports.

Amid confusion over their whereabouts on Tuesday afternoon, some French media reported that they had actually arrived in Paris and had been arrested.

image sourceAFP
image captionMehdi Nemmouche - accused of a terrorist attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels in May - was picked up in a routine search after arriving at Marseille's coach station shortly afterwards
image sourceAP
image captionIslamic State militants parading in Raqqa, Syria, in June

In reality, they left Marseille airport unhindered and were free to wander the city's main avenue, the Canebiere.

When the French authorities realised what had happened, arrest warrants were issued for the three men, Le Monde reports.

Late on Wednesday morning, all three turned up at a police station in Le Caylar, a small village about 230km (140 miles) west of Marseille.

When they rang the doorbell, they found nobody inside as the gendarmes had already left to arrest them, a lawyer told French media. However, they are now in custody.

The three men, the lawyer added, had been willing to "explain themselves to the police and justice system" all along, and were surprised that they were not questioned on their arrival.

'The incredible non-arrest'

Mr Le Drian said on Wednesday that the Turkish police's decision to change flights was "unfortunate".

He told France Info radio that the incident has been largely due "to the lack of good collaboration with the Turkish services".

"This mix-up shows that we have to strengthen relations, methods and actions with the Turkish authorities," the minister said.

Hugh Schofield, BBC News, Paris

What makes the security fiasco all the more embarrassing is the timing. This is a week in which the French have been told to be on heightened alert because of the danger from returning jihadists. Islamic State has specifically called for French people to be targeted, and in Algeria a Frenchman has been kidnapped by an IS affiliate.

And yet at this moment of all moments, three alleged jihadis returning from Syria are missed at the point of arrival in France.

Basic communication with Turkish intelligence failed to function, so no one in Paris knew they were flying to Marseille; and once on French soil either their passports were never checked, or - perhaps worse - they failed to trigger an alert.

French indignation at Tuesday's events was reflected in media headlines like "The incredible non-arrest of three French jihadists" in Le Figaro.

Some 350 French citizens are now fighting in Syria while some 180 recently returned from there to France. Le Monde reports.

France joined US-led air strikes on IS targets in Iraq last week. Since then militants in Algeria have abducted a French tourist, Herve Gourdel, and are threatening to kill him if the French do not halt their air campaign.

France has recently seen extremists take up arms close to home.

Mohamed Merah was killed in a police siege after a string of gun attacks in the Toulouse area of south-western France, which left seven people dead including an adult and three children at a Jewish school in the city.

Another Frenchman, Mehdi Nemmouche, is the chief suspect in an attack on the Jewish Museum of Brussels in May that killed four people.

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