Florence Parly, France’s defence minister, said a lieutenant-colonel stationed in Italy was facing a ‘judicial procedure’ © Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty

A French military officer, reported to be a lieutenant-colonel seconded to Nato accused of passing top secret documents to a Russian agent, has been arrested on suspicion of spying for a foreign power, French defence minister Florence Parly said on Sunday. 

The news was first reported by Europe 1 radio, which said the officer had been stationed at a Nato base in Italy and arrested for passing material to an agent of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service. He was detained in Paris on August 21 just before returning to work from holiday in France.

“I can confirm that a senior officer is facing a judicial procedure” initiated by the defence ministry, Ms Parly said. “We’ve taken all the necessary measures. Now the justice system must do its work under normal rules of confidentiality . . . It’s up to them to say what he is guilty of and if he is guilty.” 

The arrest was immediately likened by French media to events in the fictional series about the French external secret service called Le Bureau des légendes. Known in English as The Bureau, it portrays the intelligence work of agents and double agents involving the Middle East as well as Russia and the US.

The unnamed officer was arrested for “spying for a foreign power and damaging the fundamental interests of France”, according to judicial sources quoted by AFP.

A spying scandal involving Russia would come at an awkward time for French president Emmanuel Macron, who has courted his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin for more than a year and sought to repair the EU’s frayed relations with Moscow on the grounds that Russia is an important force in geopolitics that must be engaged rather than ostracised.

Mr Macron and his advisers, who accused Russia of interfering in the election that won him the presidency in 2017, say they have no illusions about Moscow’s sometimes malign intentions but need to negotiate with him to help resolve crises from Belarus and Ukraine to Iran, Syria and Libya. 

Last week, both Mr Macron and German chancellor Angela Merkel warned Mr Putin against military intervention in Belarus to help President Alexander Lukashenko crush the pro-democracy demonstrations that have shaken his regime after a rigged election. 

The French military officer was arrested by the French domestic security service the DGSI and was being detained at the Santé prison in Paris, Europe 1 said. 

Under Mr Putin, a former KGB officer and head of its successor the FSB, Russia’s intelligence services have been active at home and abroad in recent months and years.

British police have charged Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, two senior officers from the GRU, with the attempted murder of the former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury in England in 2018. They are also changed with the murder of Dawn Sturgess, who died when she came into contact with the novichok nerve agent used against the Skripals.

There was no immediate comment on the French officer’s spying case from Nato headquarters in Brussels.

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