PARIS, (Reuters) – Police found explosives hidden in a Paris department store on Tuesday after a tip-off from a group demanding the withdrawal of French troops from Afghanistan.
The group called itself the Afghan Revolutionary Front, but French officials said they had never heard of it before and warned it might be a false lead.
Police recovered five sticks of dynamite from the Printemps store. The explosives were not attached to detonators, suggesting the aim was to spread alarm rather than cause death and destruction.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said France would not negotiate with terrorists and urged caution. “At this point in time I would call on everyone to be very prudent and very measured,” he said during a visit to eastern France.
The tip-off was sent by letter to a French news agency, warning that bombs had been planted in the Printemps store on the Boulevard Haussmann, which is usually packed with Christmas shoppers at this time of year.
Dynamite was found in lavatories on the second and third floors of the men’s section of the store, which was allowed to reopen some five hours after the alarm was raised.
“If you do not intervene before Wednesday Dec. 17, they will explode,” the letter said, according to extracts carried on the website of the daily Le Monde. “Bring this message to your president so that he withdraws his troops from our country before the end of Feb. 2009 or we will return to action in your big capitalist stores and this time without warning you.”
Police said there was no mention of Islam in the letter, adding that recent attacks in Europe tied to Iraq and Afhanistan had been launched without specific prior warning.
“Anything can be written in a text,” said Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie. “There might be things that are designed to send one off in the wrong direction.”
France has more than 2,600 troops stationed in Afghanistan fighting Taliban forces. Last month, a militant group warned in a video aired on Al Arabiya television that it would attack Paris unless the soldiers went home.
Ten French soldiers were killed in a Taliban attack in Afghanistan in August and two died last month in a mine blast.
French stores, markets and underground metro stations were bombed several times in the 1980s and 1990s, with Algerian or Middle Eastern militants often claiming responsibility.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States and France’s participation in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, security officials have repeatedly said the country faces the threat of terrorist attacks.
The discovery of the explosives came at a particularly bad time for the French retail sector, which notches up much of its annual profits in pre-Christmas trading but faces a downturn this year because of the financial crisis. “The goal is to frighten people,” saidValerie Plagnol, chief strategist at CM-CIC Securities. “Security will be boosted in stores, and sales could be affected.”
Printemps, formerly part of the PPR retail and luxury goods group, was sold to an investor consortium in 2006.
Italian tourist Ilaria de Pasqua shrugged off the incident after she was prevented from entering Printemps by police. “There are lots of shops. I am going to go to Galeries Lafayette instead,” she said.