French Police Mix-up Lets Three Suspected Jihadists Free

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The Orly Sud terminal stands at Orly airport near Paris, FranceCredit: Bloomberg

Three suspected French jihadists turned themselves in Wednesday to French police after a mix-up in which they passed right through French customs even though they had gone to Syria.

French authorities also botched early reports about the men, saying they were apprehended at Orly airport in Paris, only to announce later they had flown to Marseille, passed through a customs check and walked away free.

Defense lawyers, as well as a security official, said the three appeared for questioning at a police station in Caylar.

Speaking on France-Info radio, Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian decried a "huge foul-up" due to flawed contacts with Turkish authorities who had sent the three back to France. Eric Ciotti, an opposition lawmaker, called it an "unforgiveable slip-up."

"The French people need security, they need to be reassured, and they're getting the opposite message," Ciotti told RTL radio.

French authorities estimate 900 citizens or residents of France have planned to go to Syria and Iraq to wage jihad, the largest figure for any country in Europe. Many fly to Turkey and then cross into Syria.

Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve announced an internal investigation and said he would travel to Turkey. He also noted an apparent breakdown in a computer system used at Marseille passport control.

One suspect, Abdelouahab El Baghdadi, was the brother-in-law of Mohamed Merah, a Frenchman who trained in Afghanistan and Pakistan, then returned home and killed seven people in 2012. Merah died in a shootout with police.

Another suspect, Imad Djebali, reportedly knew Merah for years. The third man was identified as Gael Maurize. The Interior Ministry said they were detained in Turkey for alleged visa violations.

Defense lawyers said they didn't know whether the men had joined up with Islamic extremists in Syria, but noted their voluntary appearance before police suggested they were not a threat to France.

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