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Bin Laden link to European arrests

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MILAN, Italy -- The "nerve centre" of an armed Islamic group intent on carrying out attacks across Europe has been uncovered, Italian police have said.

Police detained five suspected members of a group believed to be linked to fugitive Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden and German police arrested a sixth suspect.

"For the first time, we believe we can determine a direct link between Islamic terrorist cells and training camps in Afghanistan," said Stefano Dambruoso, one of two investigating magistrates heading the case.

"Some of the people contacted (by the group) were meant to be trained to go to fight in Chechnya," Dambruoso said.

He said the men were suspected to be linked to a group that had planned an attack in the central square in Strasbourg during Christmas holidays last year.

The attack was prevented by German police who arrested two Iraqis, an Algerian and a Frenchman in Frankfurt on December 26, Italian officials said.

Planned European attacks

The second magistrate involved in the latest arrest, Giuseppe Battarino, linked the alleged cell to bin Laden, wanted in the U.S, on suspicion of planning bomb attacks on the country's embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.

He said: The principal activity of these groups was recruiting people to send to these training camps in the Pakistan and Afghanistan area, which in part are controlled by bin Laden, in order to gain military experience."

Italian investigators said the group consisted of 10 men -- the five arrested on Thursday, two already detained in Algeria and an unspecified Middle East country and three who remain at large.

The suspects arrested in Italy were named as Essid Sani Ben Khemais, described as the cell commander, Kammoun Mehdi, Bouchoucha Mokhtar, Ben Soltane Adel, and Charaabi Tarek.

Italian Interior Minister Enzo Bianco praised the swoop as a "brilliant operation, " saying more arrests could follow.

"The nerve centre of an organisation which could carry out attacks in Europe has been exposed," Bianco told reporters.

He added: "We are convinced of having defeated a mastermind of Islamic terrorism."

Prosecutors in Berlin said a suspect of Algerian origin was held after raids across southern and western Germany that uncovered arms stores and bomb materials.

Bin Laden is wanted in the U.S. in connection with bomb attacks on U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998, which killed a total of 224 people, including 12 Americans, 201 Kenyans and 11 other Africans.

In January the United Nations imposed new sanctions on Afghanistan, where bin Laden is said to be based, to try to pressure the ruling Taleban authorities to hand him over.

The Taleban argue bin Laden is innocent and Washington has failed to prove his involvement in any attack.

Reuters contributed to this report.



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