PARIS (Reuters) - French investigators believe a Frenchman detained in Ukraine with a cache of weapons and explosives was more likely involved in arms smuggling than tied to a militant group, the prosecutor leading the case said on Tuesday.
France has requested Kiev’s cooperation but is still awaiting a response more than 24 hours after Ukraine’s state security service (SBU) said the suspect had planned “terrorist attacks” during the Euro 2016 soccer tournament which kicks off on Friday in France.
“This young man is unknown to French intelligence services, and the judicial authorities for now are leaning towards a possible arms smuggling case,” Thomas Pison, the state prosecutor for Nancy, said by telephone.
SBU chief Vasyl Hrytsak said on Monday the 25-year-old had made contact with armed groups in Ukraine. In a sting operation, the suspect was stopped at the Polish border with rocket launchers, Kalashnikov assault rifles and explosives.
The detained Frenchman had spoken against mass immigration, the spread of Islam and globalization, Hrytsak said, and talked of plans to carry out 15 attacks on Jewish and Muslim places of worship as well as government buildings during the Euro tournament that runs for a month until July 10.
However, in a sign that French officials doubt terrorism as a motive, the case has been handed to Pison’s office and the organized crime brigade rather than to the national anti-terrorism unit in the Paris prosecutor’s office.
Asked if France would demand the man’s extradition, Pison said: “We’re not at that point yet.”
Neighbors in the village of Nant-Le-Petit in eastern France described the suspect as a hard-working, courteous young man who often kept to himself.
“We’re shocked. He was always polite, very kind, a kid who always managed on his own,” said Catherine Lenquette, who lives opposite his house and would invite him over for dinner when he worked until late.
“We never talked about politics,” she said. “I can’t see him doing something like that.”
A raid on the man’s home turned up ingredients that could be used in homemade explosives but also in agricultural pesticides, and a T-shirt with the logo of the French far-right group French Renewal, a source close to the investigation said.
A spokesman for French Renewal said the suspect was unknown to them and that its T-shirts could be bought online.
“We’ve never heard of this young man. We’ve done nothing wrong and we have nothing to fear,” the group’s leader Thibaut de Chassey told Reuters.
One French official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the government could not confirm any of the details released by the Ukrainians, and echoed initial suspicions of other government officials that Kiev may have orchestrated the incident to serve its own interests.
Ukraine is frustrated at the European Union’s delay in granting its citizens visa-free travel amid fears of illegal immigration. French officials say Kiev might be wanting to demonstrate it can be a reliable partner at a time when it is also trying to block a lifting of EU sanctions against arch-foe Russia.
Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris and Gilbert Reilhac in Strasbourg; writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Paul Taylor and Mark Trevelyan