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Irish arrests over 'plot to kill cartoonist'

Moroccans and Yemenis held in dawn raids following death threats to illustrator

Seven people were arrested in the Republic of Ireland yesterday as part of an international investigation into a conspiracy to murder a Swedish cartoonist whose work has led to death threats from Muslim extremists.

Four men and three women were arrested in the cities of Cork and Waterford and other locations across southern Ireland in early-morning raids, as police seized mobile phones, computers and documents. The suspects are originally from Morocco and Yemen and aged from their mid-20s to late 40s. They were reportedly in Ireland legally and had refugee status.

The cartoonist Lars Vilks has been threatened over his drawing depicting the Prophet Muhammad with the body of a dog. A number of Middle East governments have condemned his work but a threat to his life was made by an al-Qa'ida faction in Iraq.

Its leader, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, posted an audio tape on the internet in 2007 offering $100,000 to anyone who killed Mr Vilks, with extra money promised if his throat was cut.

Yesterday's raids came as a surprise because Ireland has never previously been suggested as a centre of al-Qa'ida activity, and no local paramilitary groups or criminal gangs have been identified as having such links.

The detainees can be held for up to a week under Ireland's Criminal Justice Act. Specialist police squads, including anti-terrorism units, were involved in the operation, which is also believed to have had input from the CIA, FBI and other agencies.

A spokesman for the Irish police service, the Gardaí, said: "Throughout the investigation we have been working closely with law enforcement agencies in the US and in a number of European countries."

The investigation is said to focus on "a conspiracy to murder an individual in another jurisdiction".

Mr Vilks has lived under police protection since the death threat, which referred to having him "slaughtered like a lamb" by having his throat cut. He lives in an isolated area of Sweden.

The drawings that prompted the threats were originally made for an art exhibition. However, the gallery refused to show them, citing security concerns. His Muhammad drawing was then printed in Sweden's Nerikes Allehanda newspaper alongside an editorial defending freedom of expression. The al-Qa'ida faction has also offered a reward for the murder of Ulf Johansson, the paper's editor. Several of his staff have been given bodyguards.

The Swedish government has said it wants Muslims, Christians and others to live in a spirit of mutual respect and it is eager to stand up for freedom of expression, which is enshrined in the country's constitution.

The episode is seen as a low-key re-run of the furore which followed publication of a number of images of the Prophet in a Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, in 2006. On that occasion, dozens of people were killed in riots in different parts of the Muslim world.

In January, one of the cartoonists whose work appeared in the Danish paper was reported to have escaped unharmed after he was attacked with an axe by a radical Somali Muslim.