- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 22, 2010

PARIS (AP) — The threat of a terrorist attack on French soil is at its highest as authorities suspect al Qaeda’s North African affiliate may be plotting a conventional bomb attack on a crowded target, the director of the country’s national police said Wednesday.

However, Frederic Pechenard told Europe-1 radio that reports of a female suicide bomber planning a Sept. 16 attack on the Paris Metro were “not so credible.”

“We have serious indications coming from reliable intelligence saying that there’s an important risk of an attack,” he said, adding that al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb “is targeting us in particular. That’s for certain.”

The group, which claimed responsibility for last week’s abduction of five French nationals and two Africans in northern Niger, is not thought to have the means to launch a nuclear or biological attack, but it is considered capable of targeted assassinations and attacks using conventional explosives, he said.

“In order to do the maximum possible damage, (such an attack) would be likely to happen in a place where there are lots of people, which could be the public transit system, a department store or a gathering,” Mr. Pechenard said.

His comments came a day ahead of nationwide demonstrations against the government’s pension reform. A previous round of protests earlier this month brought more than 1 million people onto the streets of France, with hundreds of thousands taking part in demonstrations in Paris.

“Unfortunately, potential targets abound,” Mr. Pechenard said.

Mr. Pechenard said moderate Muslim figures could also be targets. The rector of the main Paris mosque, prominent moderate Dalil Boubakeur, recently was assigned armed guards. Mr. Pechenard did not name the rector directly, but he indicated that several prominent personalities have been placed under increased security.

Last week, there was a false bomb alert at the Eiffel Tower, as well as the kidnapping of the five French workers and their two African colleagues in Niger.

Mr. Pechenard played down French media reports that police were seeking a woman who was thought to have been plotting a suicide attack on the Paris Metro on Sept. 16, saying it no longer appeared credible.

The French government has maintained its national terror threat level at “red,” the second-highest level, since 2005.

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