- Associated Press - Monday, September 20, 2010

PARIS (AP) — France has stepped up its vigilance against terror threats, a top official announced Monday amid reports of various new threats, including one against the Paris transport network.

“The terrorist threat is real and today our vigilance, therefore, is reinforced,” Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said during a visit to the Seine-et-Marne region east of Paris. He did not elaborate on the additional security measures taken.

In the past few days, there has been a false bomb alert at the Eiffel Tower, and five French workers and two African colleagues have been kidnapped in Niger, part of the African turf of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Last week, the Senate voted to ban burqa-style Islamic veils in France, a subject that has prompted warnings by al Qaeda’s Maghreb group.

Armed guards have been assigned to the rector of the Grande Mosque of Paris, the prominent moderate Dalil Boubakeur, since Friday, because of a new threat, according to the mosque spokesman.

The three guards are with him “morning, noon and evening,” spokesman Slimane Nadour said Monday by telephone, adding, “We have no information on the nature of the threat.”

Similar armed protection was given Mr. Boubakeur, who is of Algerian origin, in 1997, when death threats were issued, Mr. Nadour said. The threats came in the form of fatwas, or Islamic judicial opinions, when Algeria was engulfed in a brutal Islamist insurgency that continues sporadically today.

It was not immediately clear whether other figures in France were recently given special protection.

RTL radio, citing sources close to the Interior Ministry, reported Monday that French authorities received information early Thursday about a possible suicide bombing attack by a woman apparently on the Paris transport system. Authorities received the alert from French and North African sources, RTL reported.

So credible was the information that Mr. Hortefeux canceled a two-day visit outside Paris, and security agents searched the transport system throughout the day but came up empty-handed, RTL said.

That same day, however, Mr. Hortefeux held an unusual news conference under the Eiffel Tower to announce that France faced an elevated risk of terrorism.

“An array of clues dating from the last few days and even the last few hours show the terrorist threat is at an elevated level,” Mr. Hortefeux said at the time. “It is a real threat.”

An official with the RATP, Paris’ public transit system, said there were “no specific threats” against the French capital’s bus and rail network and added, “We are not doing any more, or any less than usual” in terms of security. The official declined to provide his name in accordance with RATP policy. The national railway operator SNCF had no comment on the matter.

The Interior Ministry would not comment Monday on the radio report.

French authorities were alerted to threats by Islamist radicals in notes last week by intelligence agents that evoke an “anti-French focus” by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the daily Le Monde reported on Monday.

Le Monde quotes one note as saying the threats against France have intensified in recent weeks. It says the notes were written days before the kidnapping last Thursday of seven people working at a huge uranium mine in Niger run by France’s state-owned nuclear power giant, Areva.

French authorities suspect the kidnappings were the work of al Qaeda’s North African branch.

Associated Press writers Jenny Barchfield and Jamey Keaten contributed to this report.

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