Three radicalised young women who French authorities say were probably preparing “new and imminent violent action” have been arrested at a railway station south east of Paris after they were linked to the discovery of a car packed with gas cylinders left near Notre Dame cathedral last weekend, the government has said.
The interior minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, said there had been a “race against time” to catch the three women, aged 19, 23 and 39, who he described as “radicalised and fanaticised”. The women were stopped near the station in Boussy-Saint-Antoine, a small town in Essonne 30km south-east of Paris.
One of the women stabbed a police officer with a knife during the arrest, injuring him in the shoulder. Other police officers opened fire and the woman was injured.
“France is confronted with a terrorist threat of unprecedented scale,” Cazeneuve said. The changing threat took different forms and was very hard to detect, he added, as he called for the “vigilance of all citizens”.
The women were arrested in connection with the discovery on Saturday night of a Peugeot 607 car loaded with seven gas cylinders – six of them full – which was parked in a street near Notre Dame cathedral in central Paris. Police sources said no detonator device was found in the car, but the presence of diesel-filled cannisters caused fears that there had been a plan to explode the vehicle. The discovery of the car triggered an inquiry by counter-terrorism experts
Documents with writing in Arabic were found in the car, which had no registration plates and was left with its hazard lights flashing.
The car owner – who officials said was on an intelligence services watchlist of people suspected of religious radicalisation – was arrested but later released because he had gone to police on Sunday to report that his daughter had disappeared with his car.
Officials said his daughter, 19, was known to police for wanting to leave for Syria, where scores of radicalised people of French and other nationalities have joined the ranks of the Islamic State militant group.
France, which is taking part in bombing the militant group’s bases in Iraq and Syria, remains on maximum alert after calls for attacks on the country. More than 200 people have died in terrorist attacks over the past year and a half in France.
Several people had previously been arrested and questioned in the investigation into the car.
Officials said a 27-year-old man and a 26-year-old woman were detained on Wednesday south of Paris and a second couple, a 34-year-old man and a 29-year-old woman, was detained in the same case on Tuesday.
Florence Berthout, the mayor of Paris’s fifth arrondissement, said earlier this week that the Notre Dame car incident highlighted the need to increase security in the French capital. “Police and army staffing must be stepped up,” she told the news TV channel BFM.
She said the vehicle was left in a zone where parking is strictly prohibited and it had remained there for about two hours before it came to the attention of police.
Thousands of extra police and soldiers have been deployed to patrol sensitive sites across France since last year’s terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo and a Paris kosher supermarket followed by November’s attacks which resulted in 130 people being killed by Islamist gunmen and suicide bombers in coordinated attacks in Paris.
A state of emergency declared at that time remains in place and gives police extra search and arrest powers, but there has been a political debate about security levels following a further attack on 14 July in which a lorry driver ploughed into crowds in the city of Nice, killing 86 people.