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France stages second night of police raids, airstrikes over Paris attacks

Raids in France and airstrikes against ISIL's capital of Raqqa; Hollande calls for global coalition to join fight

French police staged 128 raids in the early hours of Tuesday, amid a second night of French airstrikes conducted against ISIL targets in Syria overnight, as France stepped up its response to the attacks which killed at least 129 people around Paris on Friday.

Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve announced the raids, making good on his Monday warning that raids would continue.

The airstrikes targeted a command center and a recruitment center in Raqqa, the de facto capital of the self-declared caliphate of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and included 10 fighter jets, which were launched from the United Arab Emirates and Jordan, according to military spokesman Col. Gilles Jaron.

French authorities believe Friday's coordinated attacks were planned abroad by ISIL, and on Sunday retaliated by launching its largest airstrikes in Syria to date, targeting Raqqa. France’s President Francois Hollande told parliament on Monday that he had ordered airstrikes on Raqqa overnight and would continue to wage war on ISIL "mercilessly."

On Tuesday French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said Hollande would travel to Washington and Moscow next week to press his case for a single alliance to combat ISIL instead of the current situation where Russia is supporting the forces of President Bashar al-Assad in conjunction with Iran, while the United States and France are in a coalition with Sunni Arab states opposed to Assad.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in Paris to show solidarity after the attacks, met with Hollande, and said  "My sense is everybody understands that with Lebanon's attacks, with what's happened in Egypt, with Ankara, Turkey and attacks in Paris, we have to step up our efforts to hit them at the core where they're planning these things and also obviously to do more on borders in terms the movement of people." 

Valls also said some of the victims from last Friday's attacks in Paris have still to be identified.

Valls, who was speaking Tuesday on France Inter radio, did not say how many of the victims have yet to be identified and acknowledged that authorities still did not know enough about the attacks that took place outside the Stade de France stadium.

Bernard Cazeneuve spoke on French radio France Info Tuesday and did not give specific details about the Monday night raids, saying only that "the majority of those who were involved in this attack were unknown to our services."

Prosecutors have identified five of the seven dead attackers — four Frenchmen and a foreigner fingerprinted in Greece last month. His role in the carnage has fueled speculation that ISIL took advantage of the recent wave of refugees fleeing wars in Syria, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere to slip into Europe, already sharply divided over how to handle their arrival. The possibility could have far-reaching political consequences on the continent and elsewhere.

One key suspect, Belgian-born Frenchman Salah Abdeslam, 26, remains at large after escaping back to Belgium early on Saturday and eluding a police dragnet in the Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek, where he lived with his two brothers.

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The airstrikes came after U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter Monday called on European nations to step up their involvement in the fight against ISIL in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks.

Speaking at a Wall Street Journal forum and making his first public comments since the Friday attacks in Paris that killed, Carter said “We’re looking to do more, we’re looking for every opportunity we can to get in there and go at ISIL but we need others too,” he said.

"We're looking for opportunities to get at them, and we'll continue to do that until they're defeated." 

Those methods include strikes on oil infrastructure and identifying and aiding ground forces, said Carter.

“We need others to get in the game as well,” said Carter, “so I’m hoping this tragedy has the effect of galvanizing others as it has galvanized the French.”

On Tuesday morning, France made a formal appeal for help from other members of the European Union (EU), the first time a mutual assistance article in the EU has been invoked, according to EU officials.

"In Brussels, I have just invoked Article 42.7," French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on his Twitter account during an EU defence ministers meeting. 

The clause is similar but less far-reaching than NATO's Article 5, which designates an attack on one ally as an attack on them all, and was invoked by the U.S. after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001.

While details of what France will request are not yet clear, the EU's Lisbon Treaty says that in the case of a "armed agression" on any EU country, the other countries have "an obligation of aid and assistance by all means in their power."

Le Drian said EU partners could help "either by taking part in France's operations in Syria or Iraq, or by easing the load or providing support for France in other operations."

Without commenting directly on the French invocation, the EU's foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, that "France has been attacked, so the whole of Europe has been attacked."

Speaking after EU defense ministers' talks in Brussels, Antoni Macierewicz, Poland's new defense minister, said: "We treat the attackers as a criminal, felonious group and we will do everything to crush it."

Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipila wrote Tuesday on Twitter that the Nordic country will "abide by the mutual assistance clause," adding Finnish lawmakers already have been informed of the government's decision.

In Denmark, Foreign Minister Kristian Jensen said the nation could not participate in a military operation within the EU framework because of 1992 Danish defense opt-out. Jensen stressed Danes could take part if such calls were made within NATO or the United Nations.

Czech Republic Defense Minister Martin Stropnicky said he doesn't expect any French requests for troops.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Raqqa-based collective called Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently reported the French made seven airstrikes on the city overnight.

Both activist groups said the airstrikes hit targets on the southern edge of Raqqa but had no immediate word on casualties.

In France, military spokesman Col. Gilles Jaron said the strikes early Tuesday destroyed a command post and training camp.

The second round of French airstrikes in 24 hours involved 10 Rafale and Mirage 2000 fighters, dropped 16 bombs, according to the ministry, which said the raid was “conducted in coordination with U.S. forces” and aimed at targets “identified during reconnaissance mission previously carried out by France,” according to Jaron.

They were the first strikes after Hollande vowed Monday to forge a united coalition capable of defeating the attackers at home and abroad.

"France is at war," Hollande declared to the French parliament on Monday evening. "We will defeat terrorism."

Addressing lawmakers after France observed a minute of silence honoring the 129 people killed and 350 wounded, Hollande said the victims came from at least 19 nations, and the international community, led by the United States and Russia, must overcome their deep-seated divisions over Syria to destroy ISIL on its home turf.

"Friday's acts of war were decided and planned in Syria. They were organized in Belgium and perpetrated on our soil with French complicity with one specific goal: to sow fear and to divide us," Hollande told Parliament in a rare joint session convened at the Palace of Versailles.

ISIL on Saturday claimed responsibility for Friday's assault, saying its fighters, armed with explosive vests and machine guns, carried out the attacks at locations that had been carefully studied beforehand. The attack was designed to show France that it would remain a top target for the group as long as it continues its current polices, the statement said. 

Hollande said France wanted more effective controls of the external borders of the European Union (EU) to avoid a return to national border controls and the dismantling of the 28-nation EU.

Additional security spending would be needed and France would not let EU budget rules get in the way, Hollande said, adding that France will also increase police recruitment and halt planned cuts to the army.

Hollande also told parliament that on Thursday, France will send its nuclear aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle, on its second deployment to the Middle East. The deployment, which was planned before the Paris attacks, “is going to triple our military power” against ISIL, Hollande said. “I am not talking about deterring the Islamic State but about eliminating it entirely.”

Hollande said he would meet U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin in the coming days to urge them to pool their resources.

"We must combine our forces to achieve a result that is already too late in coming," the president said.

The U.S.-led coalition has been bombing Islamic State for more than a year. Russia joined the conflict in September, but Western officials say it has mainly hit foreign-backed fighters battling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, not ISIL.

Parliamentarians had given Hollande a standing ovation before spontaneously singing the "Marseillaise" national anthem in a show of political unity.

As Hollande spoke, thousands gathered around candlelit memorials at the Place de la Republique square and beneath the Eiffel Tower, which like many top attractions in one of the world's most-visited cities reopened for business Monday in a defiant spirit. The tower was bathed in red, white and blue floodlights of the French tricolor, with the city's centuries-old slogan — "Tossed but not sunk," suggesting an unsinkable city braving stormy seas — projected in white lights near its base.

French security forces on Monday put more than 100 people under house arrest and raided 168 premises since Hollande declared a state of emergency, which he asked parliament to extend for three months.

“Let this be clear to everyone, this is just the beginning, these actions are going to continue,” Cazeneuve said on Monday.

In Belgium, heavily armed police on Monday morning launched a major operation in the Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels, which authorities consider to be a focal point for fighters traveling to Syria from Belgium.

The suspected mastermind behind the attacks is Belgian Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who is also believed to be linked to a thwarted attack on a Paris area church earlier this year.

Abaaoud came to public attention last year by boasting in an ISIL propaganda video about his pride in piling the dead bodies of "infidel" enemies into a trailer. Anti-terror agencies previously linked him to a series of abortive shooting plots this year in Belgium and France, including a planned attack on a passenger train that was thwarted by American passengers who overpowered the lone gunman.

A European security official told the New York Times on Tuesday that Abaaoud was a target of Western airstrikes on the ISIL stronghold of Raqqa, Syria, as recently as last month.

Separately, German police have detained an Algerian man in a refugee reception center in connection with the attacks in Paris. The man, detained in Arnsberg in western Germany, is being investigated on suspicion of having told Syrian refugees at the center that fear and terror would be spread in Paris. He is also alleged to have spoken about a bomb. Officials said checks were being made into whether the allegations were credible.

French authorities have identified three attackers: Paris-native Omar Ismail Mostefaim, who had a security file for radicalization; Samy Amimour, a 28-year-old Frenchman who had been charged in a terrorism investigation in 2012 but dropped off the radar and became the subject of an international arrest warrant and; Ahmad al-Mohammad, a 25-year-old Syrian refugee from the city of Idlib.

Al Jazeera with wire services

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