Ukraine said Monday it had arrested a suspected far-right French extremist who was allegedly planning to attack the Euro 2016 championships, adding to security fears over Europe’s showcase football tournament.
The 25-year-old man had a huge arsenal of weapons and was planning to attack a string of locations in his home country, Ukraine’s security services said, just four days before the tournament kicks off in France.
The arrest adds to jitters over the staging of the event in a country on high alert following last year’s deadly jihadist attacks in Paris.
Preparations in France have also been marred by strikes that have paralysed transport and torrential rain that caused flooding along the River Seine, forcing tourist attractions including the Louvre Museum to close.
Ukraine’s security service chief Vasyl Grytsak said the suspect intended to blow up “a Muslim mosque, a Jewish synagogue, tax collection organisations, transportation checkpoints and numerous other locations”.
The attacks would have been staged just ahead of and during the tournament, the SBU security service said.
Grytsak said the suspect “expressed negative views about his government’s approach to the immigration of foreigners into France, the spread of Islam and globalisation”.
He was arrested on May 21 while trying to cross into Poland near the Ukrainian frontier town of Yagodyn, in possession of a massive weapons stash that included 125 kilogrammes (275 pounds) of TNT and grenade launchers.
Video released by the SBU security service showed a man whose face was blurred out loading guns and other weapons into the back of a van.
– ‘Model employee’ –
Ukraine’s secret service said it had become aware in December of the arrival of a French national who had begun “to establish contacts with a number of representatives in the (pro-Russian separatist) east”.
The man, who has not been formally identified by French authorities, worked for Elitest, an agricultural cooperative inseminating cows in northeastern France.
The firm’s technical director Luc Voidey described the man as “an exemplary employee”.
Neighbours in the village of Nant-le-Petit, where the man regularly stayed with his grandfather, expressed astonishment at his arrest, saying he had never expressed political views.
“This doesn’t fit with the person we knew,” said local mayor Dominique Pensalfini-Demorise.
“Everybody found him very pleasant,” she said.
Nicolas Wilt, a farmer who knew him, said he had regularly visited Ukraine as “he told us he had a girlfriend in Ukraine”.
A police source indicated that a t-shirt bearing the motif of an extreme rightwing group was seized during a search in Nant-le-Petit.
French investigators have opened a preliminary inquiry into the suspect, who was previously unknown to police.
– 90,000 security personnel –
France is still under a state of emergency following November’s suicide bombings and shootings in Paris that left 130 people dead and were claimed by the Islamic State group.
Washington has already warned US citizens about the risk of attacks on stadiums and fan zones during the Euro tournament, which is set to draw around seven million fans.
President Francois Hollande acknowledged Sunday that the threat of an attack during the month-long competition could not be discounted, but promised to “do everything to ensure that the Euro 2016 is a success”.
France has mobilised 90,000 security personnel to secure areas with large numbers of supporters, with anti-hooligan policing plans also in place.
But the increasingly anxious mood in France has cast a pall over a celebrated competition that unites the continent once every four years.
The situation has not been helped by months of protests over controversial labour reforms that have seen a wave of strikes and frequent clashes between police and demonstrators.
Air France pilots are planning to go on strike over pay and conditions for four days from Saturday, a day after the tournament starts.
Make-or-break talks between unions and employers on Monday were also set to decide whether a rolling rail strike will affect the influx of fans from around the continent.
– ‘Russian involvement’ –
In Ukraine, security chief Grytsak said authorities suspected the Frenchman was trying to obtain arms from unidentified groups in the country’s war-scarred east.
“The Frenchman offered people with whom he was in contact (in the east) several thousand euros in order to have a Ukrainian citizen help him carry the load into Europe,” he said.
“We therefore believe that the Russian security services may have set him up.”
Ukraine’s eastern war zone has been awash with arms since an insurgency against the pro-Western government in Kiev erupted in April 2014.