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16 arrested in Spain terror raids

Suspects planning attacks in Europe, officials say

From Al Goodman

Spanish authorities search a Barcelona apartment Friday, in an image taken from a police video.
Spanish authorities search a Barcelona apartment Friday, in an image taken from a police video.

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MADRID, Spain (CNN) -- Sixteen suspected Islamic terrorists arrested Friday in Spain were "preparing for attacks with explosive and chemical material" in Europe, the Spanish prime minister said.

"The police have arrested 16 activists, dismantling an important network linked to al Qaeda and the Algerian Salafist group," Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar said during a nationally televised news conference.

"They had links to terrorists recently arrested in France and Britain, and they were preparing attacks with explosive and chemical material," he said. The British group was arrested earlier this month after authorities allegedly found traces of the deadly poison ricin in a London apartment.

American intelligence officials told The New York Times that British authorities believe they were plotting to poison food at a British military base with the toxin.

The Times reported one of the suspects worked at a food preparation company and had contacts with at least one base.

A Spanish government statement said the 16, mainly Algerians, were preparing to send communications gear to Chechnya and Algeria and had been trying to obtain a private broadcasting hookup that could extend 3,000 kilometers (1,860 miles).

Interior Minister Angel Acebes said the suspects were preparing for an attack in Europe. He said four suspected Islamic terrorists detained last month in France had "intense contact" with those arrested Friday in Spain.

Acebes said 35 suspected Islamic terrorists have been arrested in Spain since the September 11 attacks.

Police on Friday found chemical material that included "hydrocarbons and synthetic material." The material is being analyzed by police, he said.

Authorities also seized electronic gear that could be used in attacks, such as remote control devices that could set off bombs.

"The suspects provided information and infrastructure to other Islamic terrorist groups, and they had explosives, used chemical products and had connections to other terrorist cells in the United Kingdom and France," the government statement said.

The arrests began at 3:30 a.m. when police swooped down on 12 homes in Barcelona and nearby towns in northeastern Spain.

The 16 suspects operated in two groups, one based in Barcelona and one in the town of Banyoles in neighboring Girona province, near the French border, the government statement said.

The operation resulted from cooperation between Spanish, British and French police.

Most of the people previously arrested were thought to be members of al Qaeda, and some are in jail on suspicion of having a role in the September 11 attacks.

But at least six of the previous detentions involved suspected members of the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, which formed in 1998 as a splinter of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA). The GIA is considered to be the most hard-line faction of those attacking the Algerian government.

Police arrested an Algerian man December 26 in northern Spain on suspicion of links to the Algerian GIA.

The two leaders of the group were identified as Mohamed Tahraqui, a member of the Algerian Salafist group, who was arrested in Barcelona; and Bard Eddin Ferdji, arrested in the Girona provincial town of Olot.

Police identified the others arrested in Barcelona province as Hadj Benseguier, Abdelkader Lofti, Larbi Belkebir and Othmane Chihane.

In Girona province, those arrested were Youb Saoudi, Larbi ben Ahmed Allag, Ali Kaouka, Smail Boudjelthia, El Amin el Ghzaou, Mohamed Benhamou and Mohamed Nebber. Three others were not immediately known.

A Spanish official told CNN the suspects were initially held in eastern Spain, but Spanish news reports said later that at least some had been transferred to Madrid.

They will appear later in Madrid before a judge at the National Court, which handles terrorism cases.

Four Islamic terrorist suspects arrested last month in France -- identified as Merouane Benahmed, Mourredine Merabet, Menad Benchellali and Ahmed Belhout -- had previously been in Spain and had maintained contact with the suspects arrested on Friday, the government statement said.

It said Benahmed was an expert in chemistry and explosives and was linked to a terrorist cell arrested in Frankfurt, Germany, in December 2000 that had plotted to attack the Strasbourg Cathedral.

The Frankfurt cell included Mohamed Bensakhria, a suspect arrested in Alicante, Spain, in June 2001.

Spanish authorities have previously told CNN that Spain has been a major logistics base for Islamic terrorists. So-called sleeper cells of al Qaeda and the Salafists, trying to blend in with the everyday population, have quietly raised money, provided housing and fake documents to al Qaeda terrorists and recruited people for the cause.

Mohamed Atta, an Egyptian who is thought to have piloted the first plane to strike the World Trade Center towers on September 11, visited Spain twice in 2001. Police say the reason was to meet other terrorists.

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