Syrian refugee held in probe into French priest's killing

A sign saying "mosque in mourning" in the northern French city where a priest was killed by extremists on Tuesday. The French authorities have arrested an asylum seeker in connection with the attack.
A sign saying "mosque in mourning" in the northern French city where a priest was killed by extremists on Tuesday. The French authorities have arrested an asylum seeker in connection with the attack.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Investigators hunting down associates of the two teens who attacked Normandy church

PARIS • French police have detained a Syrian asylum seeker in connection with the Normandy church attack, two sources said, as security services widened their investigation into the killing of an elderly priest at the altar by two extremists.

Three days after teenagers Adel Kermiche and Abdel-Malik Nabir Petitjean slit the throat of Father Jacques Hamel, investigators are probing their network of associates from the northern Normandy region to the alpine east.

A police source said yesterday the Syrian man was arrested near a refugee centre in the rural Allier region of central France, where Petitjean lived for four years with his parents until 2012, according to French media.

A copy of the Syrian's passport was found at Kermiche's family home, the police source said.

A judicial source confirmed a Syrian was being held in custody. Two other people with suspected ties to the attackers are also being interrogated by police, the source said.

France, which has launched hundreds of air strikes as part of a US-led coalition against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), is reeling from two strikes by assailants loyal to ISIS in the space of 12 days.

A Tunisian delivery man ploughed his truck through a crowd in Nice on Bastille Day, killing 84 people.

The security record of President Francois Hollande and his Socialist government is under intense scrutiny following the revelation that Kermiche, 19, carried out his attack despite being under tight surveillance for two failed bids to reach Syria.

France had also been alerted by a foreign intelligence service that a suspected militant might be preparing an attack, with a nameless photo of Petitjean, also 19, circulated among intelligence services.

The two men stormed a church service, forced the 85-year-old Roman Catholic priest to his knees at the altar and killed him. They were later shot and killed by police.

Mr Nicolas Sarkozy, Mr Hollande's predecessor and potential opponent in next year's presidential election, has called for the detention or electronic tagging of all suspected Islamist militants, even if they have committed no offence - an idea rejected by Prime Minister Manuel Valls.

"My government will not be the one that creates French-style Guantanamo centres," Mr Valls told the Le Monde newspaper.

He said France had a strategy to defeat "Islamic totalitarianism". He said he would consider a temporary ban on foreign financing of mosques, and called for imams to be "trained in France, not elsewhere".

Meanwhile, Austria has handed over to France two suspected members of the same ISIS cell that massacred 130 people in Paris last November, prosecutors said yesterday.

The Algerian and Pakistani men, now aged 29 and 35 and who have not been named, were arrested in Austria in December.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 30, 2016, with the headline 'Syrian refugee held in probe into French priest's killing'. Print Edition | Subscribe