French police have arrested 19 people in dawn raids across a number of cities, as President Nicolas Sarkozy cracked down on what he termed "radical Islam" just weeks ahead of a presidential poll in which he is seeking re-election.
Several of the arrests on Friday occured in the southwestern city of Toulouse, where an al-Qaeda inspired gunman carried out a series of attacks earlier this month that left seven people dead.
Agents from the domestic intelligence agency (DCRI) and elite police carried out the dawn raids in Toulouse, the Paris region, Nantes in the west, Lyon in the southeast and the Provence region.
Three of the 19 suspects arrested were women, police said.
Judicial sources said 17 of those arrested were being held for questioning.
A senior police source told the AFP news agency that authorities had up to 100 suspected Muslim radicals in their sights and Sarkozy said Friday's operation was only a start.
Speaking on Europe 1 radio, Sarkozy confirmed the arrests and said that weapons had been seized. He said the operation was "linked with a form of radical Islam" and suggested that further raids would occur.
"We have some extremely precise questions to ask a certain number of people and what happened this morning will continue," he said, in the thick of campaigning for France's April-May presidential election.
"There will be other operations that will continue and will also allow us to expel from our national territory a certain number of people."
After trailing Socialist candidate Francois Hollande for months in the polls, Sarkozy has jumped ahead in first-round voter intentions and seen his support rise in the wake of the attacks.
The latest poll by CSA released Wednesday said 30 per cent of voters would pick Sarkozy and 26 percent would go for Hollande in the April 22 first round. But all polls still predict Hollande winning the May 6 second round.
Some of Sarkozy's opponents branded the arrests a public relations stunt, with Steeve Briois, the general secretary of the far-right National Front, calling the raids "an electoral manoeuvre".
"The 'big haul' made overnight by the DCRI and the RAID - the elite police unit that shot Merah - doesn't fool anyone," he said in a statement.
Raids 'not linked' to killings
Police sources told AFP that the raids were "not directly linked" to the Toulouse shootings, alleged to have been carried out by Mohammed Merah, who was killed by armed police last week after a standoff at his apartment in the city.
|Sarkozy said authorities had some 'extremely precise questions to ask a certain number of people' [AFP]
Sarkozy said the attacks in Toulouse and nearby Montauban, which left three soldiers, three children and a teacher dead, had been profoundly felt in France, and "a little like the trauma" that followed the September 11, 2001 attacks in the US.
The victims came from across the religious spectrum: two of the soldiers were Muslim, one Catholic, and the children and teacher were Jewish.
Al Jazeera's Jacky Rowland, reporting from Paris, said Sarkozy also announced he would pass new anti-terrorism measures before the country's presidential election.
"They are very much trying now to focus the election campaign on security rather than on economic issues, which have up until this point dominated the debate," she said of Sarkozy's campaign for re-election.
Merah was buried on Thursday in the Muslim section of a cemetery in the Toulouse neighbourhood of Cornebarrieu, on the outskirts of Toulouse, sources said, despite requests from the city's mayor that he be buried elsewhere.
French authorities have charged his brother Abdelkader Merah with complicity in the attacks and said they were looking for other accomplices.
On Thursday, France banned four Muslim preachers from entering the country for a conference of the Union of Islamic Organisations in France (UOIF), saying their "calls for hatred and violence" were a threat to public order.
The ban applies to Saudi clerics Ayed Bin Abdallah al-Qarni and Abdallah Basfar, Egyptian cleric Safwat al-Hijazi and a former mufti of Jerusalem Akrama Sabri, who had been due in Paris next month.
National Front presidential candidate Marine Le Pen on Friday called for the conference to be cancelled and the UOIF to be disbanded.
"Drastic measures must be taken without delay and without weakness against radical Islam," she said in a statement.
Claude Gueant, the interior minister, and Gerard Longuet, the defence minister, meanwhile rejected a call for the heads of France's intelligence agencies to appear before a commission in the Socialist-controlled upper house of parliament to answer questions about the Merah murders.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies