France left red-faced as suspected extremists walk off scot-free

A series of bungles led to the three suspects walking free from a French airport after leaving Turkish custody on Tuesday.

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PARIS // France has blamed a communications breakdown for a series of blunders that saw three suspected extremists waltz out of a French airport after being transferred from Turkish custody.

Authorities were left red-faced after an announcement they had arrested the three men at a Paris airport turned out to be false.

To make matters worse, it emerged the suspected French extremists had been put on a different plane entirely to the southern city of Marseille where they were – to their apparent surprise – able to walk freely from the airport on Tuesday.

In another snag, passport control failed to flag the men as suspicious because a security databank was out of order at the time, police said.

The government was, however, spared further embarrassment from the fiasco as the men surrendered to police on Wednesday – nearly a day later.

“There was clearly a massive bungle but it was in large part due to ... the absence of proper collaboration with Turkish authorities,” defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said.

The trio included the 29-year-old brother-in-law of Toulouse killer Mohamed Merah, who was shot dead by police after he murdered seven people – including three children – in a 2012 killing spree.

A 27-year-old previously convicted over terrorism-related charges and links to a militant group was also one of the three arrested in Turkey.

The interior ministry said that after the pilot of the Paris-bound flight refused to allow the men on board, Turkish authorities put them on the flight to Marseille but did not inform the ministry of the change until after the men had landed on French soil.

One of the men’s lawyers said they were not questioned when they landed.

The debacle came as France was juggling several extremist threats: hundreds of citizens leaving to fight in Iraq and Syria; a national taken hostage and threatened with execution in Algeria; and ISIL calling for Muslims to kill French citizens.

On Friday, France conducted its first airstrikes in Iraq against ISIL.

“France is not afraid,” interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve insisted this week, vowing the country was fully prepared to deal with any threat on home soil.

Critics of an already deeply unpopular government seized on the blunder, saying the extremists had “made us the laughing stock of the world”.

“So we can send planes to Iraq but we can’t control our own borders?” said Christian Estrosi, a former government minister with the conservative opposition UMP.

The three men were thought to have been arrested in Turkey on suspicion of being part of a network that recruited fighters for Syria.

They handed themselves over to police in the south-western city of Toulouse.

One of the three, Imad Jebali, “told us by phone that the pressure was too great”, said Pierre Le Bonjour, another lawyer for the suspects.

“Clearly from the start ... our clients showed a willingness to explain themselves to police and justice officials,” he said.

“We could only agree that it was the right thing to do.”

French authorities are wary about nationals who have travelled to Syria and Iraq and may return to their home country to stage attacks.

After Mohamed Merah’s death, it emerged that he had visited Pakistan and Afghanistan prior to his attacks and had been on the radar of French intelligence, who had gravely underestimated the threat he posed.

Mr Cazeneuve said around 930 French citizens or residents, including at least 60 women, are either actively engaged in Iraq and Syria fighting or are planning to go.

*Agence France-Presse