European police hold 76 suspects in World Cup anti-terrorism swoop

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The Independent Online
CO-ORDINATED dawn raids in five European countries yesterday dismantled a suspected Islamist terrorist network which may have been planning attacks on the World Cup in France next month. Police in France, Germany, Italy, Belgium and Switzerland arrested 76 people in the largest Europe-wide anti-terrorist action ever attempted.

Four of those held for questioning - one in Marseilles, one in Paris and two in Germany - are believed to be senior members of a dissident splinter movement of the violent Algerian Islamist organisation, the Armed Islamic Groups (GIA).

French authorities said they knew of no specific terrorist targets but several months of surveillance by European intelligence agencies "gave rise to suspicions that terrorist actions were being prepared in the run- up to the football World Cup". Up to 2,500,000 visitors are expected in France for the competition, which begins on 10 June and lasts for five weeks.

Arrests were continuing late yesterday. European police forces are looking for a total of 120 people, of Algerian, Tunisian and French nationality - a list established through intelligence-sharing by European Union and other counter-terrorist agencies. The man arrested in Marseilles, whom police declined to name, is wanted in connection with the failed bomb attack on a France Telecom building in Paris two weeks ago. Explosive experts defused a device - a metal canister containing explosives and nails - similar to those which killed and maimed scores of people in attacks on Parisian underground trains three years ago.

Two men picked up in Germany - Adel Mechat and Omar Saiti - are believed to be senior supporters of a dissident GIA chieftain, Hassan Hattab, also known as Abou Hamza. Hattab, thought to be struggling for mastery of the organisation within Algeria, is also responsible for the GIA's European network.

Another Algerian, arrested in Paris, Karim Boutri, is also suspected of being a Hattab activist. Documents, apparently sent by the GIA leader, were found in his apartment, according to French police. The GIA, itself a violent off-shoot from the Islamist political movement the FIS, has claimed - or been held responsible - for a series of horrific murders and massacres in Algeria in the last six years.

Yesterday's operation was co-ordinated by the French Interior Minister, Jean-Pierre Chevenement, and a Parisian investigating judge who specialises in anti-terrorist activities, Jean-Louis Bruguiere. The apparent success of the raids in five countries, and the element of surprise achieved, was hailed by French officials as a first clear success for the policy of co-ordinated anti-terrorist activity in Europe, intensified in recent years. Judge Bruguiere travelled to Germany last night to interview several suspects arrested there.

A total of 53 people were arrested at 50 different addresses in France - in Paris, Lyon, Marseilles and Porto-Vecchio in Corsica. Two people were arrested in the German cities of Bonn and Cologne. Italian police arrested nine people in the greater Milan area. Belgian police said they were questioning 10 suspects, nine from Brussels and one from Charleroi. Two were picked up by Swiss police.