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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Italian Police Raid Islamic Sites; 2 Held

Europe: The suspects and two others are accused of belonging to a Milan cell and of recruiting for Al Qaeda. One of the men remains a fugitive.

November 30, 2001|From Associated Press

MILAN, Italy — Police raided mosques and Islamic centers in northern Italy on Thursday, arresting two people accused of recruiting fighters for Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network.

As part of a crackdown on suspected Islamic militants, authorities intercepted cryptic phone conversations between members of a Milan cell and Bin Laden operatives in Afghanistan, according to Bruno Megale, a deputy chief with Italy's anti-terrorism unit.

The two men arrested were identified as Nabil Benattia, 35, of Tunisia, and Yassine Chekkouri, 35, of Morocco. Their arrests came after police picked up Abdelhalim Hafed Remadna, 35, of Algeria, as he boarded a train in Milan on Nov. 14. He had fake residency papers and was trying to leave the country.

The three men and an Egyptian fugitive named Abdelkadir Es-Sayed are suspected of being members of a Milan cell and of plotting to produce false documents and recruit fighters to train in Bin Laden's Afghan camps.

Es-Sayed was identified as a former preacher at a Milan mosque who was sentenced in Egypt for terrorist activities, Megale said. Prosecutors described him as a key member of the Islamic cell in Italy, with links to Islamic extremists in several countries.

Wiretaps of telephone conversations between the cell and Al Qaeda operatives revealed codes used by Bin Laden officials to indicate that they were ready for new recruits.

"We are opening new gymnasiums. We need instructors and materials," Megale quoted an official as saying in an intercepted call.

Both Remadna and Chekkouri worked at another Islamic site, Milan's Cultural Center and mosque, a converted garage that the U.S. has described as "the main Al Qaeda station house in Europe."

Italian investigators have arrested at least one worshiper at the center, but the arrests of Remadna, a secretary there, and librarian Chekkouri were the first of anyone directly working for the center.

Police seized documents from the center, another Milan mosque and Islamic centers elsewhere in the country, Megale said.

At Remadna's offices, police seized a false passport and false driver's license and faxes of a map detailing a route to Afghanistan through Iran, Megale said.

Lawyers for Remadna and Chekkouri said their clients had not been charged with terrorism.

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