Sticks of dynamite tied together but without a detonator were found in the Printemps department store, a favored shopping destination for tourists, and a Christmas season attraction because of its festive window displays.
Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said the explosives appeared "relatively old." Police said they were found in the third floor restroom of the menswear department. Five sticks were found together, officials said.
"There was no risk of explosion," the minister said. French news agency Agence France-Presse said it received a letter Tuesday morning from a group calling itself the Afghan Revolutionary Front saying that several bombs had been planted in the store. Police said they searched the store and found the dynamite because of the warning.
Alliot-Marie said the group was "totally unknown" to police but that the claim was being studied.
In the letter, the group demanded the withdrawal of French troops from Afghanistan before the end of February, and threatened attacks if France refuses.
"Otherwise we will go back into action in your big capitalist stores and this time without warning you," the letter said, according to AFP.
President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has increased France's troop levels in Afghanistan, quickly stressed that he would not bend to terrorism. France has 2,800 troops in Afghanistan.
"We need to be vigilant about terrorism. That is the only right policy. We have to be firm. We cannot compromise with terrorists," Sarkozy said
. A senior police official said several aspects of the incident did not bear the hallmarks of Islamic terrorism -- sending a warning, the type of explosives used, the language in the letter and the name used by the group. The group is unknown to the French domestic intelligence agency, the official said anonymously because she was not authorized to speak to the media. "This doesn't resemble anything we have ever seen."
Officers cordoned off streets around the building. Anti-crime brigades and bomb squads with a sniffer dog were called in.
French television showed pictures of women clutching one another or crying as they left the store under a line of police tape. Some staffers described a sense of panic as the evacuation order came down.
"Of course, I was scared. I felt free -- I was just relieved to get out," said Printemps employee Jimmy Manso, waiting to go back inside.
Others took it more in stride.
"It's worrying, but there's no reason to panic," said Evelyne Bredy, a sportswear saleswoman who works on the third floor, where the explosives were found.
"We're used to it. It happens," she said. "There are often suspicious packages -- though maybe not this type of evacuation."
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