French President Francois Hollande said on Thursday that France was in favour of sending weapons to the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) but only “in a controlled environment” and “with a number of countries”.
Speaking at a press conference in the Malian capital Bamako, Hollande said: “The Russians regularly send (weapons) but we will do it in a broader context, with a number of countries and a framework which can be controlled, because we cannot have a situation where weapons end up with Islamists.”
“We always said we wanted to control the supply of weapons if we did this, so that they go to the FSA,” added the French president, who was in Mali for the inauguration of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.
France’s interior minister revealed earlier Thursday that hundreds of homegrown Islamist militants were signing up to fight in Syria and warned they could pose a security threat when they come back.
More than 300 French nationals or residents are either currently fighting in Syria’s civil war, planning to go and fight or have recently returned from there, the minister, Manuel Valls, told France Inter radio.
Most were young men, often with a delinquent past, who had become radicalised, he said.
“This is a phenomenon which worries me because they represent a potential danger when they return to our soil,” Valls said. “We have to be extremely attentive.”
Experts in counter-terrorism fear that a chemical weapons attack near Damascus on August 21 could inspire more radicals to embark on jihad, or holy war, in Syria, increasing the numbers of a new generation of battle-hardened militants capable of wreaking havoc when they return to their home countries.
At least one French national has died fighting in Syria — a 22-year-old convert to Islam from Toulouse only identified as Jean-Daniel, who was killed in a clash with government forces in August.
Islamist groups threatened to stage attacks in France as well as on French targets after Paris intervened in Mali early this year in reaction to advances made by Islamist groups who had seized control of the north of the country.
Citing intelligence reports, Valls said there were more than 130 French nationals or residents currently fighting in Syria, about 50 who had returned home, some 40 who were in transit areas and around a 100 who were likely to travel to Syria.