PARIS (Reuters) - High confusion surrounded the fate of three men suspected of joining militants in Syria, after a plan to detain them on their return to France on Tuesday collapsed because security forces waited for them at the wrong airport.
Lawyers for the men, who include the brother-in-law of a gunman who killed seven people in France in 2012, said on Tuesday evening they were in France and still free.
Late on Tuesday, the Interior Ministry issued a statement saying they had originally been scheduled to be put on a flight to Paris by Turkish authorities, who had detained them over problems with their visas.
But after the pilot refused to take the men on his plane, Turkish authorities instead put them on a flight to Marseille, hundreds of kilometers (miles) away in southern France.
“French (intelligence) services were informed by their Turkish counterparts about this flight change after the arrival of the three deported men on French soil,” the statement said, adding that the French intelligence service was continuing to investigate.
French media earlier in the day had quoted ministry sources as saying, apparently erroneously, that the men had been arrested in France and charged with being linked to a terrorist organization.
Pierre Dunac, the lawyer of Imad Djebali, one of the three men, told i-Tele television the men had in fact entered France of their own free will.
“I don’t know what the Interior Ministry is saying, but legally if they had been extradited they would have been accompanied from Turkey to France.
“It is reality to tell you that they came back to France at their own will. The other reality is that they went through customs in France with their passports without being bothered in any way.”
Lawyer Apollinaire Legros-Gimbert, representing another of the men, told Reuters all three had returned to France but were not in custody.
Thousands of volunteers have traveled from Western countries to Syria and Iraq to join Islamist fighters, including Islamic State.
Fears have grown in France that some might mount attacks on their return, particularly after France launched air strikes on Islamic State targets in Iraq last week.
More than 100 French nationals involved in jihadi networks in Syria have been arrested and 74 charged with terrorist activity, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said on Monday.
The three men who returned on Tuesday include the husband of Souad Merah, whose brother Mohamed Merah killed seven people including three Jewish children in southwest France in March 2012 before he was shot dead by police.
Cazeneuve said in May Souad Merah was also likely to have traveled to Syria.
Lawyer Christian Etelin, who once represented Mohamed Merah and is now advising Souad, told Reuters he had been in contact with Souad’s husband while he was being held in Turkey.
“It’s a classic story of young French or Westerners who dream of Islamic State, a society based on religion, but when they get there they are terrified by the fanaticism, the crimes and torture that is carried out,” Etelin said.
He said that after expressing a desire to leave Syria, the three men had been imprisoned by Islamic State as suspected French spies.
“They were sure they would be condemned to death and it’s for this reason they did everything to escape and they handed themselves to the Turkish police to ask for their help and protection.”
Additional reporting by Emmanuel Jarry, Marion Douet and Joanna Decorse; Editing by Andrew Roche