Sun, Nov 02, 2003 - Page 5 News List

French authorities contradict Aussie PM on terror risk


uthorities in France said they were "90 percent sure" that a French terror suspect recently deported from Australia was planning an attack here, a newspaper reported yesterday.

Despite Willie Virgile Brigitte's alleged links to terrorism, French authorities did not have enough evidence to arrest him before he left for Australia this year, said Gilles Leclair, controller-general of France's main counterterrorism coordination unit in a report by The Sydney Morning Herald.

The report did not give details of any alleged plot to launch an attack on Australian soil.

On Friday, Australian Prime Minister John Howard said authorities had no evidence Brigitte was plotting an attack.

"I don't want to say that because I don't think there's evidence to support that," Howard said.

"But as in so many of these things you never know all of the story immediately and it's always important to try and get more information," he added.

The Herald said French authorities didn't detain Brigitte in the hope he would lead them to other terror cells. Leclair said no international arrest warrant was issued against him.

"We knew he was an interesting case. He was on our national database and we knew when he came back he was a target," Leclair was quoted as saying.

French investigators were expected to travel to Australia soon, the Herald said.

Brigitte, 35, was deported on Oct. 17 after French authorities warned Australia of his presence here in late September -- five months after he arrived in May.

Some in Australia have raised concern that a terror suspect could have been in the country undetected for so long.

"This poses the fundamental, basic question as to how is it that more than two years after September 11 a person such as Brigitte can walk into an Australian embassy, pick up a tourism visa and travel to Australia for five months, despite the fact he was already on France's domestic terrorism database," opposition spokesman Kevin Rudd said yesterday.

French authorities had said earlier that they believed Brigitte was asked by a terror group to provide accommodation for an explosives expert in Australia.

This had sowed fears that he may have been planning an attack in Australia.

Australia has never been hit by a large-scale terror attack but the nation of 20 million was put on high alert after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks because of its close links to the US.

Fears about terrorism were heightened after 88 Australians were among 202 people killed in blasts on the Indonesian resort island of Bali on Oct. 12 last year.

Brigitte is also suspected of running false passports to assassins who killed Ahmed Shah Massood, a former anti-Taliban rebel leader in Afghanistan, a French official told reporters earlier this week on condition of anonymity.

French officials said he was believed to have trained with a Pakistani militant group for six months.

He is now being held in a Paris-area jail on suspicion of association with a terror group, but has not been accused of any terrorist activity.

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