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Chechen link to France threat
Updated: 2004-03-17 09:00

France has received threats of attacks from a shadowy Islamist group apparently named after a Chechen guerrilla, the Interior Ministry said on Tuesday.

The letter, sent to several newspapers and published on daily Le Parisien's Web site, threatened "to plunge France into terror and remorse and spill blood outside its frontiers."

Chirac (R) and Schroeder before the meeting at the Elysee Palace [AP]
"France will not be safe, not at home nor in its interests abroad," read the letter, purportedly from a group calling itself the Movsar Barayev Commando in apparent reference to a Chechen guerrilla who died leading a hostage-taking operation at a Moscow theater 18 months ago.

"These are threats articulated in such a way that they are being taken very seriously," a judicial source told Reuters.

European countries are on the alert for attacks since last week's train bombs in Madrid killed 201 people in what Spanish authorities say may have been an al Qaeda operation.

The French interior ministry said the threat, "on behalf of the servants of Allah, the powerful and wise," mentioned attacks in France and on French interests abroad.

Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin said the government took such threats seriously but warned against panic: "We have to keep calm. We are in a country which must not be afraid."

France, which in contrast to Spain opposed the Iraq war, has interpreted the Madrid attacks as a strike on all Europeans, regardless of their positions on the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Some had thought Paris's opposition to the war had bolstered its image among Muslims but it came in for sharp criticism in the Islamic world this year when it banned Muslims from wearing headscarves in schools -- part of efforts Raffarin's government said would help integrate Europe's biggest Muslim community.

The new letter called the "veil ban" a "declaration of war to the Muslim world" and called on Raffarin to withdraw it.

"If you don't withdraw it immediately, we will respond harshly and with an intensity unheard of in your country since the attacks of 1995," the letter said, referring to a series of Islamist attacks in France in 1995 and early 1996.

A senior ally of Osama bin Laden in al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahri, singled out France and the headscarf legislation for criticism in a letter published last month.

Security experts say France is also a target because of its cooperation with authorities fighting Islamist militants in its former North African colonies -- Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco.

On Wednesday, France will put on trial Frenchman David Courtailler over alleged links to Muslim militants. Prosecutors say the convert to Islam met a suspect in the Madrid bombings, Jamal Zougam, at a mosque in the Spanish capital.

Stephane Berthomet, a former anti-terrorist police officer, said he had never heard of the Barayev group: "I fear these are some of the people who will appear more and more in the next few months," he said. "We will have a slew of threats."

Barayev led a squad of Chechen Muslim separatists who took a Moscow theater audience hostage in October 2002. He died along with more than 120 others when police stormed in.

Berthomet said France had already hiked its security precautions up to "red" level, the highest it could do without unleashing draconian measures in the top "scarlet" level.

"Anything is possible. They could just as well hit the Eiffel Tower as the U.S. embassy," he said.

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