French police arrest Syrian refugee over church attack
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French police arrest Syrian refugee over church attack

Asylum seeker held on suspicion of involvement in Tuesday’s killing of priest in jihadist assault in Normandy town

Illustrative: French policemen at the arrest of a man in the Normandy city of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, where an elderly priest was killed by two terrorists who claimed to be acting on behalf of the Islamic State jihadist group, on July 26, 2016. (AFP/Charly Triballeau)
Illustrative: French policemen at the arrest of a man in the Normandy city of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, where an elderly priest was killed by two terrorists who claimed to be acting on behalf of the Islamic State jihadist group, on July 26, 2016. (AFP/Charly Triballeau)

PARIS — A Syrian refugee was arrested by French police on suspicion of being involved in a deadly jihadist attack on Tuesday on a Catholic church, a source close to the probe said Friday.

The arrest, which took place in central France on Thursday, raises to three the number of people currently being held as part of the investigation into Tuesday’s murder of an elderly priest at a church in the northwestern town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray in Normandy.

The suspect was arrested near a refugee center in the rural Allier region of central France, Reuters reported.

There was no immediate information on the two others being detained.

The perpetrators of the attack, Adel Kermiche, 19, and Abdel Malik Petitjean, also 19, were shot dead by police after a standoff at the church on Tuesday.

Petitjean was listed in June on France’s “Fiche S” of people posing a potential threat to national security after trying to reach Syria from Turkey. Kermiche had been on house arrest and wearing a monitor after attempting to reach Syria twice.

Petitjean, whose face was disfigured after being shot dead by police, had been harder to identify and investigators confirmed his identity after a DNA match with his mother.

84-year-old French priest Jacques Hamel was killed in an apparent Islamic State attack on his church in the town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, in Normandy on July 26, 2016 (Photo from Twitter)
84-year-old French priest Jacques Hamel was killed in an apparent Islamic State attack on his church in the town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, in Normandy on July 26, 2016 (Photo from Twitter)

The two jihadists were shown pledging allegiance to the Islamic State group in a video made before they stormed a church in the Normandy town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray Tuesday and slit the throat of Jacques Hamel, an 86-year-old priest at the altar.

The attack came as the government was already facing a firestorm of criticism over alleged security failings after the Bastille Day truck massacre that left 84 people dead two weeks ago.

Warnings of terror strike

One of the criticisms is that Kermiche had been released from prison while awaiting trial on terror charges after his second attempt to travel to Syria.

He was fitted with an electronic tag — allowing him out of the house on weekday mornings — despite calls from the prosecutor for him not to be released.

Annie Geslin, who worked with Kermiche’s mother for many years, told AFP “he was the youngest child and had psychological problems.”

Sources close to the investigation said Petitjean “strongly resembles” a man hunted by anti-terrorism police in the days before the church killing over fears he was about to carry out an act of terror.

The sources said France’s anti-terrorism police unit UCLAT sent out a note four days before the attack — saying it had received “reliable” information about a person “about to carry out an attack on national territory.”

Three members of Petijean’s family were taken into custody for questioning, said a source close to the investigation.

In a video posted on the IS news agency Amaq, the two men calling themselves by the noms de guerre Abu Omar and Abu Jalil al-Hanafi, hold hands as they swear “obedience” to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Petitjean, addressing French President Francois Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls says in the recording: “The times have changed. You will suffer what our brothers and sisters are suffering. We are going to destroy your country.”

“Brothers go out with a knife, whatever is needed, attack them, kill them en masse,” he says.

Normandy church attackers pledge allegiance to Islamic State (Screen capture: Youtube)
Normandy church attackers pledge allegiance to Islamic State (Screen capture: Youtube)

Petitjean, from the Savoie region in eastern France, worked in several part-times sales jobs and was described by his incredulous mother as “gentle. He is not involved at all.”

Others who knew him were equally shocked, describing him as normal and showing no signs of radicalization.

“All the believers are shocked because he was known for his kindness. What was going on in his head?” asked Djamel Tazghat, who manages the local mosque.

The attack is the third in two weeks in France and Germany in which jihadists have pledged allegiance to IS, increasing jitters in Europe over young, often unstable men being lured by the group’s propaganda and calls to carry out attacks in their home countries.

IS also claimed that Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, who plowed a truck into a crowd in the French city of Nice on July 14, was one of their “soldiers.” However, no direct link has been found.

Security fears meant a march for the Nice victims planned on Sunday, as well as another in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray due to be held on Thursday were canceled.

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