French security services were left red-faced Wednesday after three alleged French jihadists, arrested in Turkey, failed to arrive at Paris’s Orly airport where they were due to be taken in for questioning.
The men are suspected of having joined militants across the Turkish border in Syria. They were detained last month after they crossed back into Turkey.
They were due to be flown to Paris on Tuesday, but a mix-up in Turkey meant the men were instead put on a flight to the southern French city of Marseille where they landed, sailed through passport control and went off the radar.
The group includes Abdelhoued Bagadhali, the 29-year-old brother-in-law of Toulouse killer Mohamed Merah who in March 2012 murdered seven people in the name of jihad, including three children at a Jewish school in Toulouse.
They have since given themselves up to police at Le Caylar, near the southern French city of Montpellier, where they are being questioned, police said. The men can be held for up to 72 hours before being charged.
France says Turkish move was ‘misguided’
The episode has been a severe embarrassment for the French security services who have tried to shift the blame to Ankara.
On Tuesday afternoon the French interior ministry announced that the men had been arrested at Orly. They quickly backtracked when it became clear that this was not in fact the case.
The ministry later issued a statement explaining that the pilot of the Paris-bound plane had refused to let the men aboard because they lacked the necessary documents, and that the Turkish authorities had simply put them on the next flight to France.
Even the men’s lawyers were flabbergasted that France and Turkey could have bungled the repatriation of the men, who were arrested in Turkey for alleged jihadist activity in Syria. They had given themselves up, apparently in fear of their lives.
“As incredible as it may seem, it’s true,” said Pierre Dunac, who represents Imad Djebali, one of the three men. “I don’t know what the Interior Ministry is saying, but legally if they had been extradited they would have been accompanied from Turkey to France.
“They came back to France of their own free will. The other reality is that they went through customs in France with their passports without being bothered in any way.”