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Italy police raid 'terror cell'

By CNN Rome Bureau Chief Alessio Vinci

An Italian police officer shuts down the apartment in Naples
An Italian police officer shuts down the apartment in Naples

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NAPLES, Italy (CNN) -- Italian police have detained 28 Pakistani nationals in a raid on a property in Naples, saying they believe they may have uncovered a sleeper cell linked to the al Qaeda terrorist network.

Explosives, maps, and manuals on how to falsify documents were seized during the raid, which took place late on Wednesday and early Thursday, officials said on Friday.

The Pakistanis -- between the ages of 20 and 48 -- were charged with possessing illegal materials and belonging to an organisation intent on committing acts of terror.

Police said they discovered 800 grammes of explosives, detonators and other equipment in the three-storey residence.

They also found maps of the city of Naples with what police described as sensitive targets encircled.

Manuals on how to falsify documents were also uncovered in the residence, as well as some 100 cell phones.

Naples, one of Italy's largest cities, is near Bagnoli, home to NATO's Southern Command headquarters. Also nearby is the Port of Gaeta, the base of the U.S. Navy's Sixth Fleet.

Lieutenant Colonel Pat Barnes, a spokesman for U.S. European Command in Stuttgart, Germany, told Reuters protection levels at all U.S. naval facilities in Italy were raised one notch on Thursday night as a result of the arrests.

In a statement, the police said they believed the men, aged between 20 and 48, were members of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network, which the United States blames for the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington.

"The men have been arrested and charged with association with international terrorism, illegal possession of explosive material, falsification of documents and receiving stolen goods," the statement from Naples police headquarters said.

Pakistan denial

Police said the explosives was sufficient to make a bomb that could blow up a three-storey building and that some of the fuse was laced with highly flammable nitroglycerine.

More than 100 people have been arrested in Italy since September 11, 2001 on suspicion of links to terror organisations. Seventeen have been convicted, but most have been released for lack of evidence.

Police have grown increasingly wary of announcing what appear to be breakthroughs in the fight against terrorism, and sources told Reuters on Friday that magistrates were irritated that news of the latest arrests had got out.

Pakistan's ambassador to Italy, Zafar Hilali, denied the men were terrorists and said the arrests appeared to form part of a campaign of targeting innocent Pakistanis living in Italy.

"According to my information none of (these men) had anything whatsoever to do with terrorism, none of them had anything like explosives," he told Pakistan TV.

"The embassy immediately applied for access to our citizens and I myself asked to see the minister of the interior because this is not the first time such allegations have been made.

"There are reasons these kinds of charges are levelled against our people and you can best judge what they are."

He said 24 of the 28 men had applied for permits to work in Italy and were legal, adding that they were unfortunate only because they were living in a house owned by the Mafia.

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