France faces terrorism threat

PARIS — France is facing a "peak" terrorism threat, and authorities suspect al-Qaida's North African affiliate of plotting a conventional bomb attack on a crowded target, the national police chief said Wednesday.

The warning from National Police Chief Frederic Pechenard came on the eve of national protests that unions hope will send millions into city streets, and was the latest warning from French officials that the public needs to be more alert about terrorism.

"France is today under threat. For that matter, French people need to get used to it," he told Europe-1 radio. "We're now facing a peak threat that can't be doubted. There is a specific threat against French interests.

"We have serious indications, coming from reliable intelligence, saying that there's an important risk of an attack," he said, adding that al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, "is targeting us in particular."

Last week, there was a false bomb alert at the Eiffel Tower, and investigators are looking into an anonymous phone call that prompted police to evacuate the most-visited monument in the tourism-oriented country.

AQIM claimed responsibility for last week's abduction of five French nationals and two Africans in northern Niger. Pechenard said the group isn't thought to have the means to launch a nuclear or biological attack in France, but could carry out assassinations or attacks using conventional explosives.

"In order to do the maximum possible damage (such an attack) would be likely to happen in a place where there are lots of people, which could be the public transit system, a department store or a gathering," Pechenard said.

Last week, the French Senate voted to ban burqa-style Islamic veils in France, a subject that has prompted warnings by AQIM.

Counterterrorism officials in France say the ban is just one of several factors that have made France a target of the group. Another was France's military logistical support for a July raid by Mauritanian forces against the group that left six of its militants dead. AQIM has its base in a vast swath of African desert.

On Thursday, hundreds of thousands are expected to take to the streets across France for demonstrations against the government's pension reform.

Pechenard said he didn't believe the protests would be a terrorist target.