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France put on terror attack alert

France is on alert for possible terrorism after intelligence suggested that attackers might target a public gathering place, with one lead pointing to a female suicide bomber, a counter-terrorism official said.

The official said authorities were bracing for a possible attack last Thursday, and although nothing unusual happened that day in France, authorities are not letting their guard down, he said.

The scare came as five French workers and two African colleagues were kidnapped in Niger, part of the African turf of al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. On September 14, there was a false bomb alert at the Eiffel Tower.

Last week, the Senate voted to ban burka-style Islamic veils in France, a subject that prompted warnings by al Qaida's Maghreb group.

Interior minister Brice Hortefeux said "the terrorist threat is real, and today our vigilance, therefore, is reinforced". Speaking during a visit to the Seine-et-Marne region east of Paris, he did not elaborate on the additional security measures taken.

Despite the warnings, Mr Hortefeux said France has not raised its terror alert level to scarlet, the highest ranking. It remains at red, the second-highest on the four-level scale.

Armed guards have been assigned to the rector of the Grande Mosque of Paris, the prominent moderate Dalil Boubakeur, since Friday, because of a new threat, according to the mosque spokesman. The three guards are with him "morning, noon and evening", spokesman Slimane Nadour said, adding: "We have no information on the nature of the threat."

Similar armed protection was given to Mr Boubakeur, who is of Algerian origin, in 1997 when death threats were issued, Mr Nadour said. Those threats came in the form of fatwas, or Islamic judicial opinions, when Algeria was engulfed in a brutal Islamist insurgency that continues sporadically today.

It was not immediately clear whether other figures in France were recently given special protection.

The counter-terrorism official confirmed a report on RTL radio that said authorities received information about a possible suicide bombing by a woman. The official declined to give other details.

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