French police can carry guns even when off duty

Police officers observing a minute of silence at a memorial ceremony held yesterday for an off-duty police officer and his wife who were fatally stabbed by an ISIS assailant.
Police officers observing a minute of silence at a memorial ceremony held yesterday for an off-duty police officer and his wife who were fatally stabbed by an ISIS assailant.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Relaxation of rules comes as Belgium warns of possible attacks by extremists

PARIS • France has eased its gun rules to allow off-duty police officers to carry their sidearms even if the nation is not in a state of emergency.

Wednesday's move was a response to an attack on Monday in which an Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) assailant stabbed a policeman and his wife, who worked for the Interior Ministry, at their home while their child was there.

The relaxation of rules, welcomed by France's police unions, came as the authorities in neighbouring Belgium alerted police that more attacks appeared to be in advanced planning stages and could be imminent.

A newspaper in Belgium said the authorities had warned that a group of extremists had departed Syria and divided into groups headed for Belgium and France.

The information reported by Belgian newspaper La Derniere Heure said police had received an alert that "combatants left Syria about a week and a half ago in order to reach Europe via Turkey and Greece, by boat, without passports".

Belgian counter-terrorism officials tried to play down the significance of the warning. However, officials did not dispute the authenticity of the new warning, which described the would-be assailants as armed and poised to strike. Among the more than a dozen possible targets in Belgium were embassies, hospitals, concert halls and pedestrian streets, according to the warning.

With the Euro 2016 soccer tournament under way in France and drawing huge crowds to city centres and areas around stadiums, the report from Belgium was consistent with assessments by security officials that its neighbour faces a persistent and serious risk.

There are already a number of Belgian and French citizens or residents who have fought for ISIS or other extremist groups and then returned home, as was the case with a number of the people who took part in the Paris and Brussels attacks.

In a testimony before Belgium's Parliament on Wednesday, Justice Minister Koen Geens said that as of June 7, 114 Belgian fighters had returned from the Syrian-Iraqi conflict zone and seven had since died.

The number of returnees in France is 244, top French intelligence official Patrick Calvar told lawmakers last month.

There was no change to the threat level in France in response to the Belgian alert. France has maintained a state of emergency since the Nov 13 Paris attacks, and considers the risk of attack high.

However, police officers were particularly on edge after the stabbings. The country's powerful police unions met senior officials at the Interior Ministry on Wednesday and emerged saying they had received indefinite permission to carry their work guns, even when off duty.

They are permitted to do so now under state of emergency provisions, but those will expire on July 26. The extended permission is not permanent, but does not currently have an end date.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 17, 2016, with the headline 'French police can carry guns even when off duty'. Print Edition | Subscribe