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EU ministers pledge to tighten external border controls against extremists

Published 20/11/2015

Bernard Cazeneuve, left, with German interior minister Thomas de Maiziere (AP)
Bernard Cazeneuve, left, with German interior minister Thomas de Maiziere (AP)

European Union nations have pledged to quickly tighten the bloc's vast external border to prevent more violent extremists from coming in.

A week after co-ordinated attacks claimed by Islamic State killed 130 people in Paris, French interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve and the other EU interior and justice ministers used an emergency meeting to push for the next steps to increase security and prevent more bloodshed.

"We have talked enough. We have to act. It's not an option, it's an obligation," said Luxembourg's domestic security minster Etienne Schneider, who chaired the meeting in Brussels.

France and Belgium urged their EU partners to tighten gun laws, toughen border security and choke off funds to extremist groups.

"Terrorists are crossing the borders of the European Union," said Mr Cazeneuve, underlining why the 28-nation bloc must move forward on a long-delayed system for collecting and exchanging airline passenger information, data he said is vital "for tracing the return of foreign fighters" from Syria and Iraq.

The EU exchanges such information with the US, Australia and Canada, but has proved incapable of agreeing a system for sharing data between its own members.

France has called for inter-European flights to be included in the data sweep and wants the information it retains - names, credit card details, itineraries and other personal data -to be kept for a year instead of a month.

Despite deadly attacks on Paris in January, talks among EU nations and with the EU legislature have gone at a snail's pace for years on vital security issues while violent extremism has thrived.

"We have to bring an end to the promises for another day... these delays, otherwise Europe will be lost," Mr Cazeneuve told reporters after the meeting. "We need strong actions. We must move swiftly and with force. Europe owes it to all victims of terrorism and those who are close to them."

The chairman of an influential European Parliament committee believes the EU can finally seal a deal by the end of next month on sharing air passenger information.

"It is entirely possible for a strong proposal to be completed before the end of 2015," said Claude Moraes, chairman of the assembly's civil liberties committee.

The narrative provided by French officials on the co-ordinated attacks a week ago on France's national stadium and Paris cafes, restaurants and a theatre raises disturbing questions about how a wanted militant already suspected of involvement in multiple plots could slip into Europe undetected.

French investigators quickly identified Belgian-born Abdelhamid Abaaoud, 28, as the architect of the attacks in Paris, but believed he had co-ordinated the assaults from the battlefields of Syria.

That situation changed drastically on Monday when France received a tip from a non-European country that Abaaoud had slipped back into Europe through Greece.

How and when Abaaoud entered France before his death remained unclear. He had bragged in the Islamic State group's English-language magazine that he was able to move in and out of Europe undetected.

As it turned out, not only was Abaaoud in Europe, but he was just a 15-minute walk from the French national stadium where three suicide bombers blew themselves up during the November 13 attacks.

Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said Abaaoud was traced to an apartment in Saint-Denis through phone taps and surveillance. Following a seven-hour assault on the apartment on Wednesday, police said the suspected plot ringleader and his female cousin both died in a hail of bullets and explosions.

On Friday, the Paris prosecutor's office said three bodies had been found in the apartment, including Abaaoud and his cousin Hasna Aitboulahcen, 26. The identity of the third body has not been announced.

Belgian authorities on Friday released seven people detained a day earlier, but continued to hold one person suspected of links to the Paris attacks and another linked to French stadium bomber Bilal Hadfi but not directly to the Paris attacks.

French police official Jean-Marc Falcone, speaking on France-Info radio, said he was unable to say if fugitive Salah Abdeslam, a friend of Abaaoud, could be back on French territory. French police stopped Abdeslam the morning after last Friday's attacks at the Belgian border but then let him go. His brother Brahim was one of the Paris suicide bombers.

French President Francois Hollande's office said he will lead a national ceremony on November 27 honouring the victims of the deadliest attacks on France in decades. The ceremony will be at the gold-domed Hotel des Invalides, where Napoleon's tomb lies and which is seen as a symbol of France's military and international strength.

Mr Hollande is also going to Washington and Moscow next week to push for a stronger international coalition against IS.

Interpol chief Juergen Stock said "every additional record made available across borders builds a new opportunity for Europe" to combat foreign fighters.

Interpol says its foreign fighter database has details from more than 50 countries on about 6,000 people.

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