PARIS: France has foiled a "terrorist" plot to capture and decapitate a member of its armed forces at a military base, officials said.
Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said security forces staged dawn raids on Monday and arrested four people, aged between 16 and 23, who were "planning to commit a terrorist act" at a French military installation.
The youngest was quickly released but the other three are suspected of planning to kidnap and behead a member of the military, possibly on December 31 when the facility was thinly staffed.
The oldest of the group served as a navy signalman at the base around the southern town of Collioure, which is also used for training by elite commando forces.
He was identified as Djebril and was recently kicked out of the navy, said a source close to the investigation who did not wish to be named.
The other key plotter was just 17, and was already being closely watched by authorities due to his activities on social media and connections to French militants in prison.
All three of those still under arrest had been planning to travel to terrorist-controlled areas of Syria, the security source said, but the 17-year-old's mother contacted authorities and he was interviewed by counter-terrorism officials.
No weapons were found during the arrests, the source said, although officials discovered documents on preparing explosives.
The news of the arrests followed a statement from President Francois Hollande, who said attacks had been thwarted in recent days.
"This week, we stopped terrorist attacks which could have taken place," Hollande said on a visit to the southern city of Marseille.
France remains on high alert more than six months after terrorist attacks in January that claimed 17 lives and started with shootings at satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
At traditional July 14 celebrations, Hollande said: "Every week, we are arresting, preventing ... terrorist acts."
The suspected plotters are now in the custody of France's intelligence services, the DGSI, and anti-terrorist prosecutors in Paris have opened a probe, Cazeneuve said.
"I want to congratulate our security services for this new blow to the terrorists and for again foiling an attack," said the minister.
News of the foiled attack came just hours after two blasts on Tuesday at a petrochemical plant near Marseille, described by Cazeneuve as a "criminal act".
Investigators had yet to pin down a motive for the explosions and there was currently "no link" with the foiled attack on the military base, he added.
The government says there are 1,850 French citizens or people living in France who are "implicated" in terrorist networks, with around 500 in Syria or Iraq.
France, which is home to Europe's largest Muslim population, has beefed up security, posting 30,000 police officers and soldiers outside 5,000 sites deemed "sensitive" such as schools and places of worship.
Authorities have also set up a hotline for friends or family concerned that someone could be tempted to wage ‘holy-war’ — an effort that has yielded 2,500 leads.
Following controversial "anti-terror" laws passed last year, France is also preventing suspected militants from leaving the country — some 118 travel bans have been enforced since the legislation was passed in November.
Cazeneuve said 29 people had been prevented from entering the country in that time.
A further 40 "preachers of hate, including pseudo-, self-proclaimed imams" had been kicked out of France.
Paris has also tightened security around sensitive sites such as factories, calling for "maximum vigilance".
Last month, a man with a suspected link to the Islamic State group spiked his boss's severed head onto the fence of a US-owned gas factory in eastern France.
But experts have warned it is extremely difficult to defend against attacks on such sensitive sites.
"There is no such thing as zero risk," said Philippe Prudhon, a technical expert at the UIC union of chemical industries.
"If someone really wants to cause harm, it will be difficult to stop him or her. We have to realise that we have been in a fundamentally different environment for the past three years," Prudhon said.
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