By Edward Cody
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 28, 2010; 2:06 AM
When an unclaimed package was spotted in a busy Paris subway station Monday, police immediately diverted trains, ordered thousands of frustrated travelers into the street and dispatched a bomb squad to test for explosives.
Within half an hour, the armor-suited specialists had determined there was no bomb. Train and subway passengers flooded back into the Saint Lazare station, rail lines re-opened and France's increasingly nervous anti-terrorism authorities breathed a sigh of relief.
The alert was short-lived but the message was clear: France has the jitters over the possibility of a terrorist attack. In a country where people sometimes make fun of precautions taken in the United States since Sept. 11, 2001, President Nicolas Sarkozy's government has gone out of its way in recent days to warn repeatedly that terrorists may be planning a new attack in France.
Tension has also risen because of the capture of five French people on Sept. 15, along with two African colleagues, at a remote French-operated uranium mine in the central African country of Niger. Their abduction was acknowledged by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a band of several hundred extremists who have pledged loyalty to Osama bin Laden and for the past decade have been marauding in the vast deserts of Niger, Mauritania, Mali and Algeria.
Bernard Squarcini, who heads the Central Directorate of Internal Intelligence, warned in two interviews that the threat within France was also particularly high- "All the blinkers are on red," he declared. The Interior Ministry said a foreign intelligence service had passed along a report that a woman had been overheard suggesting a suicide bombing was being prepared for Paris.
Although officials later dismissed that report as unreliable, they maintained the high alert. Patrols by soldiers armed with automatic rifles were increased at airports, train stations and monuments such as the Eiffel Tower that receive daily streams of tourists. Military vehicles were seen driving around central Paris with Vigipirate - the name of France's anti-terrorism plan - painted boldly on the flanks, as if in an advertisement for the high state of readiness.
France last suffered a major terrorist attack in December 1996, when four people were killed and 170 wounded by a bomb that exploded in a commuter train station near the Luxembourg Gardens. But Squarcini said French anti-terrorism police uncover an average of two plots a year, including one recently on the directorate's suburban headquarters.
The source of the increased threat or the reason France would be a target were not revealed - and may not have been known. But under Sarkozy, France has drawn closer to the United States, increased the number of troops in Afghanistan and broadened their role to participate more actively in combat.
Moreover, since taking over in 2007, the French president has acquired a reputation as pro-Israel and had a law passed banning Muslim immigrants from wearing full-face Islamic veils in public.
More directly, France long has had extensive economic and political interests in central and northern Africa. It has encouraged and cooperated with governments seeking to rid the region of the al-Qaeda branch there. The group grew from Algeria's Islamic underground and is headed by an Algerian, Abdelmalek Droukal, but it now draws recruits from the entire region.
Defense Minister Herve Morin said Monday that the government has reason to believe the five French captives have been taken to Mali and are still alive. Paris is waiting to see a list of demands, he said, to begin negotiations with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb on conditions for their release.
"Of course I have hope, but this is obviously something complicated, difficult, uncertain, with on the other side a group of 450 to 500 men - that's about the number of al-Qaeda combatants in these immense zones - a group that is waging total war against the West," he said in a television interview.
A Malian military officer who has been involved in past negotiations with al-Qaeda told the French news agency Agence France-Presse that he saw the captives alive on Sunday in a remote corner of Mali. French officials said they believe the seven are being held somewhere near the Ifoghas hills, in northern Mali near the border with Algeria.
The unsettled zone, which Malian authorities acknowledge they do not control, has been identified as a redoubt of Abdelhamid Abu Zeid, also known as Abid Hammadou, who heads the local al-Qaeda squad that acknowledged capturing the French mining technicians.
Abu Zeid vowed to seek revenge in July after Sarkozy ordered French commandos to participate along with Mauritanian special forces in an attack on one of his Malian camps, in a failed attempt to liberate another French hostage, 78-year-old Michel Germaneau. The attacking soldiers killed six of Abu Zeid's combatants but did not find Germaneau, whose execution was announced several days later in an Internet posting by Abu Zeid's squad of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.