PARIS (Reuters) - French police arrested two people in the hunt for accomplices of an al Qaeda-inspired gunman who went on a killing spree last year, the Paris prosecutor’s office said on Wednesday.
The new arrests come as France’s military intervention in Mali has raised pressure on the government to weed out radicalised Islamists at home who could pose a threat to domestic security.
The two men, aged 29 and 30, were detained on Tuesday in southwest France, where gunman Mohamed Merah killed three soldiers, a rabbi and three Jewish children in March 2012 before he was shot dead by elite police.
The three separate attacks by the Algerian-born French national shocked the country and raised questions about Muslim integration in France and possible intelligence failures.
France’s Mali intervention has raised the spectre of reprisals as Islamist rebels seeking to impose sharia, Islamic law, in Mali have called on followers to attack Mali’s former colonial ruler. The French government has tightened security in public buildings and transport networks.
The top French anti-terrorism judge told Reuters this week the country faces a growing threat from younger, self-radicalised Islamists. He said they turn to radical Islam either alone, via the Internet, or through interaction with imams calling for violence against France.
On Tuesday, Interior Minister Manuel Valls said France would deport several radical imams, without giving more details. At least four imams considered radical by authorities have already been expelled over the past year.
“We are faced with a intensified terrorist threat ... we’re faced with an enemy from within that we need to fight with the law and with justice,” Valls told reporters.
Valls, who plans to meet family members of some of Merah’s victims on Wednesday, has said he did not believe Merah was a “lone wolf”, but had received overseas help and been radicalised in France.
Police have been searching for a “third man” seen with Merah and one of his brothers when they stole a Yamaha scooter police say was later used in the killings. They also want to know who provided a weapons cache found in Merah’s apartment.
The brother, Abdelkader Merah, has been in detention since March while under investigation on suspicion of complicity in terrorism, murder and theft. He denies being an accomplice in the killings.
French media reported one of the men arrested on Wednesday was linked to Abdelkader, while the other was the leader of a Salafist group that espouses a radical version of Islam.
The two men were transferred on Wednesday to the Paris headquarters of France’s domestic intelligence unit.
A man and a woman arrested in December who were suspected of being accomplices were later freed.
Authorities have also looked into any role the gunman’s sister, who was captured on film saying she was “proud” of her brother, may have played, but that case was closed last week.
Reporting by Nicolas Bertin and Alexandria Sage; Writing by Alexandria Sage and John Irish; Editing by Alison Williams