French police arrested five people described as being of Chechen origin in the south of France after a small amount of explosive material was found hidden near a sports stadium, authorities said Tuesday.
The suspects were picked up in the cities of Beziers and Montpellier. Local public prosecutor Yvon Calvet said other suspects were being sought but discounted links to terrorism.
“This affair has no religious connotation, but is linked to big crime. The anti-terrorist brigade has not been asked to investigate,” Calvet told a news conference.
However, the head of the police in Montpellier, Gilles Soulier, earlier said detectives were still investigating whether the five suspects were planning an attack.
The Russian government has long battled Islamic extremism in the region of Chechnya.
Bomb disposal experts were called in late Monday after what was described by police as a cache of explosives was found in an apartment near the Sauclieres sports stadium in Beziers. The material was reported to be less than a pound of acetone peroxide, an explosive that is simple to make.
The arrest came as France remained on high alert following three attacks by Islamic fundamentalists in Paris two weeks ago that left 20 dead, including the three assailants. The targets of the militants included the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
Hours before this week's arrests in southern France, hundreds of thousands of people in the Chechen capital Grozny joined a government-called protest against the publication of cartoons in Charlie Hebdo that some Muslims have found offensive. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov had called for a demonstration to denounce the West and anyone who supported the magazine.
In Paris, meanwhile, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio visited to show his "solidarity" with the French capital and his counterpart, Mayor Anne Hidalgo.
De Blasio laid flowers outside the offices of Charlie Hebdo, where brothers Saïd and Cherif Kouachi gunned down 12 people on Jan. 7, and at the kosher grocery where their accomplice Amedy Coulibaly killed four people two days later. The three assailants were killed by police in separate raids on Jan. 9.
De Blasio told journalists the attacks were Paris’ Sept. 11.
Paris and New York "have both born the brunt of terror and we have for many years shown the example, in our own way, of tolerance, integration and a multicultural society," he said. "The people of New York stand with you."
Willsher is a special correspondent.