Italy expels nine suspected Islamist militants

ROME - Italy has expelled nine suspected Islamist militants so far this year as part of a heightened security alert throughout Europe and could make further expulsions, Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said on Sunday.

Attacks in Paris, in which Islamist gunmen killed 17 people, and a foiled plot to attack Belgian police have put security services across Europe on high alert.

Italian media have speculated that two men fleeing Belgian police who were arrested in eastern France last week may have had some connection with Italy where they were apparently preparing to travel. However no imminent specific threat against Italy has yet been reported.

"We have done everything necessary, within the limits of possibility, to guard against the threat," Alfano said, noting that the expulsions had started before the Paris attacks which began on Jan. 7 with the Charlie Hebdo shooting.

"There have been nine expulsions. I'm not stopping here and with regard to expulsions, we will continue to be extremely tough," he said.

He said five Tunisians, one Turk, one Egyptian, one Moroccan and one Pakistani, all of whom had longstanding residence permits, had been expelled. Two had been preparing to travel to Syria to fight with Islamist militant groups, he said.

Alfano, who met his Spanish counterpart Jorge Fernandez Diaz in Madrid on Saturday, said Italian security services had been stepping up cooperation with other European countries.

Italian media reported that around 100 suspected Islamist militants were under surveillance in Italy but Alfano said the actual number of cases was higher.

"There is no black list. There is surveillance work but the numbers concerned are much bigger than 100," he said.

"We have dealt with a very large number of cases of dangerous individuals from the jihadist world but there is no list of 100 names," he said.

He said a total of 59 foreign Islamist fighters with some connection to Italy had been identified, although he stressed the total did not refer to individuals actually present in Italy and said 14 were known to have been killed.

Authorities had found no evidence that Islamist militants were among the tens of thousands of illegal immigrants who have come to Italy in boats from North Africa and the Middle East over the past year.

"So far, nothing has emerged," he said.