PARIS – French police detained 19 people Friday as they launched a crackdown on suspected Islamist extremists in cities around the country, President Nicolas Sarkozy said, promising more raids to come.
Tensions are high following a spate of killings in southern France by a radical Islamist that left seven people dead and two wounded and ended up with police killing the gunman last week after a 32-hour standoff.
But French Interior Minister Claude Gueant told journalists "there is no known link" between those detained Friday and Mohamed Merah, the 23-year-old Frenchman who claimed responsibility for the shootings in Toulouse and Montauban.
Sarkozy gave no details about the reasons for Friday's arrests.
"It's in connection with a form of Islamist radicalism," Sarkozy said on Europe-1 radio. "There will be other operations that will continue and that will allow us to expel from our national territory a certain number of people who have no reason to be here."
Sarkozy said he didn't know whether the 19 detainees were part of any network.
A police investigator told The Associated Press that the anti-terrorist unit of the Criminal Brigade detained five men before dawn in Paris who had suspected links to an Islamist movement. Weapons were also seized, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with the department's rules.
The other arrests took place in Toulouse, Marseille, Nantes and Lyon, the official said.
In Nantes, Mohammed Achamlane, the head of Forsane Alizza, a radical Muslim group that formed two years ago, was among the detained. French officials had banned the group in February.
Merah, who espoused radical Islamist views and said he had links to Al Qaeda, was buried near Toulouse on Thursday.
Three Jewish schoolchildren, three paratroopers and a rabbi were killed in the worst terrorist attacks in France since the 1990s, slayings that revived concerns about homegrown Islamist radicals.
Public order and security are high up on the agenda as Sarkozy seeks reelection in the upcoming presidential poll that kicks off April 22.
"It's our duty to guarantee the security of the French people. We have no choice. It's absolutely indispensable," he said Friday
French Muslims have worried about a backlash after Merah's attacks, and French leaders have urged the public not to equate Islam with terrorism.
But concerns about radical Islam are high and the government on Thursday banned several international Muslim clerics from entering France for a conference of the UOIF, a fundamentalist Islamic group. The clerics were of Palestinian, Egyptian and Saudi origin.
"These people call for hatred and violence and seriously violate the principles of the Republic, and in the current context, seriously risk disrupting public order," the foreign ministry said.
Sarkozy said earlier these clerics would not be "welcome" as their views are incompatible with French values.
The leader of France's right-wing National Front party, Marine Le Pen, went even further Friday, calling for the complete dissolution of the UOIF and saying it is thought to have links with "terrorists."
"Drastic measures must be taken against radical Islam," she said in a statement.
The UOIF responded by saying that Thursday's ban "deeply hurts the Muslim community and reinforces the blending in public opinion" between moderate Muslims and extremists.
"Our group combines a peaceful way of practicing religion with republican citizenship," it said.
One of those banned, the Egyptian-born Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, is widely respected throughout the Middle East and has a popular weekly TV show on Islamic law on the Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeera.
In the Islamic world, al-Qaradawi has been criticized by more conservative scholars for allowing men and women to study together, encouraging Western Muslims to participate in their democracies and condemning Al Qaeda's Sept. 11 attacks.