Hunt for Masood's killers nets 14 arrests

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The Independent Online

The hunt for the murderers of the former Northern Alliance leader, Ahmed Shah Masood, led to 14 arrests in Belgium and France yesterday, after police rounded up suspects accused of trafficking in stolen passports.

Eleven houses in Brussels, Paris, Mons, Leuven and a farm in northern France were raided in a co-ordinated operation that also involved British police.

Two stolen Belgian passports were found on the bodies of the assassins of Mr Masood, who was killed two days before the 11 September attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

Belgium has long been regarded as a centre for the trafficking of passports. However, it was unclear whether the inquiry that produced yesterday's arrests will provide any direct link to those who plotted the assassination of Masood.

France's Europe 1 radio station reported that those arrested were Tunisians and Moroccans suspected of organising the bomb attack that killed Masood on 9 September and claimed that one of those held, a Tunisian, was an associate of Osama bin Laden.

But Jos Colpin, spokesman for the Belgian investigating magistrate, refused to comment on the report.

A spokesman for the French police said it was "premature" to establish a link with the Masood killing, adding: "We are working on their papers, their passports but to jump from there to say it's all linked to the assassination would be premature."

Twelve people are being held in Belgium and two in France and a magistrate is to decide by today whether to keep under arrest those detained in Belgium. The Belgian government said in September that the two Arab suicide bombers, posing as journalists, who killed Masood in northern Afghanistan had been in possession of stolen Belgian passports. Masood died in an Afghan hospital six days after the attack, dealing a severe blow to the Northern Alliance.