updated 10/21/2006 11:26:24 PM ET 2006-10-22T03:26:24

Authorities rescinded the security clearance of 43 baggage handlers at France’s main international airport due to suspicions they were connected with radical organizations, a top government minister said Saturday.

Responding to reports a day earlier that several dozen baggage handlers at Charles de Gaulle airport had lost security clearance, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy put the number at 43 and said authorities had clear reasons to deny them security badges.

“There were specific elements that made us forbid them entry” to sensitive areas at Paris’ largest airport, Sarkozy said.

“I cannot accept that people with radical practices” work in an airport, the minister said, adding that it was his “duty to ensure that (workers) do not have any kind of links with radical organizations.”

Sarkozy did not elaborate on what specific information authorities had received about the workers denied security badges but at least some are known to be Muslims.

Prayer rooms closed
Addressing the airport crackdown at a day of debates at the Sorbonne University, Sarkozy said that, in addition to denying security badges to some baggage handlers, officials had also closed “seven Islamist, clandestine and illegal prayer rooms” at Charles de Gaulle and at Orly, the second Paris airport.

Sarkozy also said 18 imams preaching a radical brand of Islam had been expelled from France since January. It was the first official figure on the number of expulsions of imams suspected of passing a radical message to the faithful.

Lawyers have said the baggage handlers, who worked for subcontractors at the airport, were likely to lose their jobs because such work depends on security clearances. Four of them filed a joint complaint in the past week, alleging they had been unfairly associated with terrorism because they are Muslims, attorney Eric Moutet said Friday.

The anti-racism group known as MRAP announced Saturday that it, too, was filing a complaint on behalf of the baggage handlers for “discrimination because of ethnic origins.”

Jacques Lebrot, an official who oversees Charles de Gaulle airport, told The Associated Press on Friday the cases were “linked to terrorism” and that the decision to deny clearance followed recommendations by France’s anti-terrorism coordination unit, UCLAT, as part of an 18-month investigation.

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