ATHENS (Reuters) - The holder of a Syrian passport found near the body of one of the gunmen who died in Friday night’s attacks in Paris was registered as a refugee in several European countries last month, authorities said.
Greece identified the man as 25-year old Ahmad Almohammad, from the northwestern Syrian city of Idlib, and said he had entered Europe through the Greek island of Leros, where he was processed on Oct. 3.
France has not publicly confirmed that the passport holder is a suspect, but Greek Migration Minister Yannis Mouzalas said French authorities had told Greece they suspected that Almohammad, whose passport was found outside the Stade de France near the body of a gunman, was one of the attackers.
Mouzalas told a news conference the man had arrived alongside 198 refugees on a boat from Turkey. In Leros, the man was identified and fingerprinted by Greek authorities and given a document that allowed him to stay in Greece for six months and seek asylum there.
Instead, he was registered at the border, crossing from Macedonia into Serbia, a few days later.
The information is significant because, if any of the Paris gunmen turn out to have come into Europe among refugees and migrants fleeing war-torn countries, this could change the political debate about accepting refugees.
“One of the suspected terrorists, A.A., who is of interest to the French security agencies, was registered on the Presevo border crossing on Oct. 7 this year, where he formally sought asylum,” the Serbian Interior Ministry said in a statement.
“Checks have confirmed that his details match those of the person who on Oct. 3 was identified in Greece. There was no Interpol warrant issued against this person.”
A spokeswoman for the Croatian Interior Ministry said the man had been registered in the Opatovac refugee camp on Oct. 8, and from there crossed into Hungary and then Austria.
“There was no (police) record about him at the time of registration and there was no reason for us to stop him in any way,” she said.
However, Austrian Interior Ministry spokesman Karl-Heinz Grundboeck said it was only “conjecture and speculation” that the passport holder had passed through Austria.
Mouzalas said Greece, which has received 600,000 migrants this year, mainly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, had followed all the appropriate procedures in dealing with Almohammad.
“You cannot stop someone who has decided to die,” he said, showing Almohammad’s passport photo and fingerprints. “It is wrong to equate refugees with terrorists.”
Since the Paris bloodshed, populist leaders around Europe have rushed to demand a halt to an influx of refugees and migrants from the Middle East and Africa. Poland said it could not accept migrants under EU quotas without security guarantees.
Human Rights Watch Emergency Director Peter Bouckaert tweeted that the Syrian passport found in Paris may have been fake, adding that such documents were widely available to buy in Turkey.
“The answer to the Paris attacks and the possibility that one of the attackers came by rubber dinghy to Greece ... is not to shut the door on those desperately fleeing war,” he said, calling for Europe to put in place a coherent asylum policy that would both help those in need and address security concerns raised by uncontrolled flows.
“People fleeing war need refuge. And trying to build fences and stopping them at sea only drives them deeper into the hands of criminal gangs, and drives them underground where there is no control over who comes and goes.”
additional reporting by Ivana Sekularac in Belgrade, Igor Ilic in Zagreb, Karin Strohecker in Vienna, Yara Bayoumy in Beirut, writing by Silvia Aloisi; Editing by Kevin Liffey