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France ups security after spate of bloody attacks

Municipal police patrol the Christmas market in the French city of Nantes on December 23, 2014, a day after a man rammed into shoppers with his car/AFP

Municipal police patrol the Christmas market in the French city of Nantes on December 23, 2014, a day after a man rammed into shoppers with his car/AFP

Paris, Dec 23 – French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said Tuesday that security would be stepped up nationwide following three successive, apparently unrelated bloody attacks, in a bid to ease growing unease in the country.

While the motives behind the incidents – a knife attack on police and two cases of cars ploughing into passers-by – remain unclear, the violence has jarred nerves after repeated jihadist calls for “lone wolf” action in France over its fight against Islamic extremism.

“Fear over Christmas” declared Le Parisien daily, while Le Figaro newspaper wrote a front-page editorial headlined “enemies from within”.

Valls stressed that the three incidents were “distinct”, urging the French to keep calm while stressing security would be heightened.

“The number of patrols will be increased during this (Christmas) period. Two hundred to 300 extra soldiers will be deployed in the coming hours” on top of the 780 already on patrol, he said live on television.

The violence began on Saturday when a man reportedly shouting “Allahu Akbar” was shot dead after walking into a police station in the central town of Joue-les-Tours and attacking three officers with a knife, two of whom were seriously injured.

Then on Sunday evening, a driver ploughed into pedestrians in Dijon in the east, injuring 13 people and also shouting the same Islamic phrase which means “God is greater” and has in the past been used by extremists when waging violent attacks.

And on Monday night, another man rammed into a bustling Christmas market with his car in the western city of Nantes, injuring 10 people — one of them critically — before stabbing himself repeatedly and being arrested.

– Don’t ‘give in to fear’ –

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The attacks both differ widely and present disturbing similarities, and Valls acknowledged there could be a copycat effect.

“Unbalanced individuals can act. They can be receptive to or influenced by propaganda messages or the power of images,” he said.

Authorities have for months been on tenterhooks over the threat of violence inspired by Islamic extremism.

In September, the radical Islamic State group that controls swathes of Iraq and Syria urged Muslims around the world to kill “in any manner” those from countries involved in a coalition fighting its jihadists, singling out the French.

Among instructions detailing how to kill civilians or military personnel was to “run him over with your car”.

But while the probe into Saturday’s attack is veering towards extremism — the Burundian convert to Islam who assaulted police had posted an Islamic State flag on his Facebook page — the car rampages appear to have been committed by people with psychological problems.

Both prosecutors in charge of probing these incidents insisted they were not “terrorist acts”.

The assailant in Dijon, for instance, had been to psychiatric hospitals 157 times, local prosecutor Marie-Christine Tarrare told reporters.

She said he told police that he ploughed into people due to a sudden “outburst of empathy for the children of Chechnya” and had shouted “Allahu Akbar” to give him courage.

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Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve meanwhile said the attacker in Nantes also appeared to be “unbalanced” and not motivated by politics or religion.

A source close to the investigation said that after slamming into shoppers, the driver stabbed himself in the chest “at least nine times”, causing himself serious injuries.

“We must not panic, lump things together, give in to fear,” warned President Francois Hollande on a trip to the overseas French territory Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon.

– Minimising risk? –

Nevertheless, the government faced criticism Tuesday that it was minimising the threat, at a time when more than 1,000 nationals are thought be involved in jihad on home soil, or in Syria and Iraq.

Saturday’s assailant Bertrand Nzohabonayo was not on a domestic intelligence watch-list but his brother Brice is well known for his radical views and was arrested in Burundi soon after the incident.

Nzohabonayo’s mother had also told authorities that she was worried about Brice’s radicalisation and “the influence he could have on his brother Bertrand”, said Paris prosecutor Francois Molins, whose office is in charge of the probe.

The assailant in Dijon, meanwhile, had taken an interest in religion and started wearing a djellaba — a long robe worn in Muslim north African countries — just a week ago, according to his mother.

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