Arrests in Australia foil 'catastrophic act of terror'

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Australian police staged fresh raids last night, less than 24 hours after arresting 17 men who they believe were planning a "catastrophic act of terrorism".

Federal officers swooped on a house in the suburbs of south-west Sydney, but refused to confirm that a woman and two children had been taken away. They declined to comment on reports that a second home nearby had also been searched.

Hundreds of armed police were involved in yesterday's pre-dawn raids in Sydney and Melbourne, the largest anti-terrorism operation mounted in Australia. One of the 17 suspects was in a critical condition in hospital after being shot in the neck during a gunfight with police. The others appeared in court yesterday, charged with conspiring to carry out a terrorist act and belonging to a proscribed organisation. Police say they seized chemicals similar to those used in the London Underground bombings in July.

The raids and arrests appeared to vindicate the Prime Minister, John Howard, who last week rushed an amendment to existing counter- terrorism laws through parliament, claiming it was necessary to foil a specific threat.

Critics accused him of trying to divert attention from unpopular domestic policies, including proposed legislation eroding trade union rights.

There is no question that the developments have come at a fortuitous time for Mr Howard, who earlier this week introduced draconian anti-terrorist legislation into parliament. The bill - which has been condemned by lawyers, civil libertarians and some opposition politicians - will allow suspects to be detained without charge for 14 days. It also sets jail terms of up to seven years for people convicted of sedition, a provision that many fear will stifle artistic freedom and free speech.

The Nobel Prize-winning author J M Coetzee, who settled in Australia a few years ago, recently made a thinly veiled attack on the proposed legislation, drawing a comparison with state-sanctioned human rights abuses in his native South Africa during the apartheid era.

The government has been warning Australians for several years that the country is a potential terrorist target. However, it has steadfastly denied that its contribution of troops to the US-led war in Iraq has in any way increased the threat. Last year the Federal Police Commissioner, Mick Keelty, was forced to recant under political pressure after suggesting just that.

Yesterday's action against the suspected members of a home-grown terrorist cell followed an 18-month investigation. Mr Keelty said there would be more arrests.

"The operation is a long way from being finished," he said.

Those detained included the cell's alleged spiritual leader, Abdul Nacer Benbrika, an Algerian-born radical Muslim cleric from Melbourne.

He has publicly praised Osama bin Laden and urged his students to engage in "violent jihad".

During a court hearing in Melbourne, police alleged that surveillance had picked up one suspect, 20-year-old Abdulla Merhi, begging for permission to become a martyr to avenge the war in Iraq.