French elite police arrested around 20 people in early morning swoops on suspected Islamist circles on Friday in several cities including Toulouse, scene of this month's killings of soldiers and Jewish children, a police source said.

The arrests in Toulouse in the southwest, Nantes and Le Mans in western France, and in the Paris region, were carried out by the RAID police commando unit, the source said.

The raids, less than a month from a presidential election, come just over a week after police hunted down and killed Mohamed Merah.

The al Qaeda-inspired gunman admitted during a siege of his apartment that he had shot dead three soldiers, three school children and a rabbi in three attacks in Toulouse and the surrounding region.

The police source said the raids were not directly part of ongoing inquiries into the case of Merah, whose brother Abdelkader has been placed under official inquiry and is being held in custody on suspicion of complicity.

(Reporting by Gerard Bon; Writing by James Regan and Brian Love; Editing by Michael Roddy)