PARIS (Reuters) - The Algerian national suspected of ploughing a hire car into a group of soldiers in a wealthy Paris suburb is believed to be unknown to French intelligence services and had no criminal record, a police source said on Thursday.
Investigators late on Wednesday raided several addresses associated with the 36-year-old suspect, who was cornered by armed police from elite units on a motorway some 260 kilometres (162 miles) north of the capital.
Interior Minister Gerard Collomb said the incident was a “deliberate act” and prosecutors opened a counter-terrorism investigation. The police source said the suspect is called Hamou Benlatreche, confirming local media reports.
Benlatreche was not thought to be on a secret service list of people linked to radical Islam, the police source said.
“When a suspect is on the list, we know immediately,” the source said. “But in this case we’ve not been given any indication that he is.”
Benlatreche’s uncle described his nephew as a faithful Muslim who prayed regularly, and expressed shock at hearing that his relative was linked to the attack.
“I couldn’t believe it. It totally stunned us,” Mohammed Benlatreche told BFM TV.
The attack targeted a group of soldiers as they began a morning patrol in the upscale area of Levallois-Perret, home to France’s domestic intelligence agency and only a few kilometres from landmarks such as the Arc de Triomphe and Eiffel Tower.
Six of the soldiers were injured, three of them seriously.
They were part of Operation Sentinel, a 7,000-strong force launched in the wake of Islamist attacks in Paris in early 2015.
Wednesday’s attack was the sixth on troops belonging to the force and has raised questions about the strain the operation on home soil has placed on an army facing budget cuts.
Opponents say it is overstretching the army, reducing time between operational rotations, depriving regiments of time for training for foreign deployments and hurting morale. Some say the troops are sitting ducks for would-be militants.
“All it has done is hand Daesh clear targets,” Vincent Desportes, former director of France’s Ecole de Guerre, was quoted as saying in daily newspaper Le Parisien. Daesh is the commonly used Arabic name for Islamic State.
Supporters of Operation Sentinel, which costs hundreds of millions of euros a year, say the force has served as a deterrent and given French citizens and tourists greater peace of mind.
Jacques Bessy, president of the Association for the Defence of Soldiers’ Rights, acknowledged the strains placed on the military but said the mission was essential.
“It is true that the operation is tiring and stressful,” said Bessy. “We need to examine the resources in order to refocus the patrols on priority areas such as stations, tourist sites, certain places of worship.”
Reporting by Caroline Pailliez, Cyril Camy and Miranda Alexander-Webber; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Catherine Evans