Two men suspected of recruiting Islamic militants are arrested in Milan

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The Independent Online

Anti-terrorism police in Milan have arrested two North Africans suspected of recruiting Islamic militants for Osama bin Laden and with direct links to his al-Qa'ida network.

Police arrested a Moroccan and a Tunisian yesterday and issued warrants for two others, an Algerian already in police custody, and an Egyptian who has been missing since a police raid last July. They also searched two mosques in Milan, where they seized false documents, and the homes of a dozen North Africans in other northern cities. The arrests brings the total number of Islamic militants seized by Italian police to five.

Massimo Mazza, the director of the DIGOS anti-terrorism police, said: "We believe the suspects are directly linked to al-Qa'ida and actively recruited people to send them to Afghanistan."

Investigators say they have taped calls made on a satellite phone from Abdel Halim Hafed Remadna, an Algerian, to Abu Jaffa, who is thought to be the number three in Mr bin Laden's network. In these and other calls there were references to getting arms, recruits and funds to Afghanistan for the "gymnasiums", which is slang for the training camps.

Mr Remadna was picked up by police two weeks ago while boarding a train out of Milan. He was carrying false documents.

Mahmoud Abdelkadir Es Said, 39, an Egyptian who was not captured, had recently been granted refugee status. Police say they believe he is now in Afghanistan and that he has close contacts with Rifai Paha Ahmed Mousa, thought to be the mastermind behind the 1997 tourist massacre at Luxor.

Until several months ago Mr Said was the Imam at the second Milan mosque on Via Quaranta. A Tunisian, Yassin Chekkouri, 35, of Morocco, was a librarian at a mosque on Viale Jenner.

In phone tap transcripts there are frequent references to Mr bin Laden, though the Milan based supporters refer to him as "the stranger", "the chief" or "the sheikh". Among the plans discussed were gas attacks in Strasbourg and in the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

The United States has identified the Viale Jenner mosque as a key logistical base for the al-Qa'ida network in Europe. Italy's Islamic communities have strenuously denied the accusation. In response to yesterday's arrests, the director of the centre, Abdel Shamir Shaari vowed a vigorous defence.

The probe into a terrorist cell in Milan began earlier this year with the arrest in April of Sami Ben Khemais, a Tunisian considered to be the head of the cell. He is detained in a prison near Milan pending trial.

Police yesterday also searched the house of an Italian chemicals expert, a convert married to a Muslim woman. In phone taps, the cell members said their "enthusiastic Italian brother" could lend "technical" support to the cause.

Police have arrested suspected extremists linked to al- Qa'ida in several other European countries, including Britain, France, Belgium and Spain, since the attacks