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6 Alleged Members of Milan Cell Held


PARIS — Italian police have dismantled an alleged terrorist cell based in Milan, part of a European network with contacts in Iran, Malaysia and Afghanistan that is suspected of plotting attacks on U.S. targets, authorities said Friday.

Five North African suspects were arrested Thursday and Friday in the Italian cities of Milan, Naples and San Remo and on the island of Malta. A sixth remains at large and a seventh, the alleged leader, is in a British jail.

Their activities in recent months demonstrate that the Al Qaeda terrorist network is trying to shake off a worldwide crackdown and reorganize to prepare new strikes, Italian investigators said.

The suspects allegedly scouted the U.S. embassies in Belgium and the Netherlands as potential targets, an Italian law enforcement official said.

"This is the first time here in Italy we find someone who we think was preparing an attack," said the official, who requested anonymity. "They have been under a lot of pressure since Sept. 11. But this group was still active."

The FBI and Scotland Yard assisted Italian investigators in the case. The arrests came as fears are growing of new Al Qaeda attacks because of the apparent terrorist bombing Sunday of a French oil tanker off Yemen, the ambush slaying of a U.S. Marine in Kuwait two days later, and other possible signs of a gathering threat from the terrorist network. In the tanker explosion, French authorities said Friday that they had found traces of TNT in the hole blown in the side of the ship, supporting their preliminary conclusion that terrorists were behind the blast.

Working closely with U.S. agencies, Italy has aggressively pursued Islamic extremists. Hype and infighting among police forces have marred some cases, officials acknowledge privately. After a much-trumpeted sweep in February, a group of Moroccans accused of plotting to attack the U.S. Embassy in Rome was released without being charged with terrorism.

This week's arrests grew out of a three-year investigation in Milan of a support network that allegedly assisted Al Qaeda members across Europe. Aided by extensive wiretaps and other surveillance, prosecutors have convicted seven members of a mostly Tunisian cell of dealing in false documents and other crimes related to illegal immigration. They belonged to a North African organization, the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, that is part of the multiethnic Al Qaeda alliance.

The suspects in Friday's case, who apparently scattered to avoid arrest, also are allegedly Salafists. Police say the suspects had ties to the convicted group but operated their own cell. They face charges of terrorist activity.

The alleged leader is Farj Hassan, known as Hamza the Libyan, whom British police arrested for immigration violations in May. He was served with a warrant in the Italian case this week, authorities said.

Hassan allegedly communicated with fugitives who were trying to reorganize Al Qaeda's battered operations while in hiding, according to investigators. One was a son of Osama bin Laden believed to be in Iran; Italian authorities did not identify him further. The other was a man in Malaysia known as Abu Hani, allegedly once a trainer of suicide terrorists in Afghanistan and a suspect in the assassination last year of Ahmed Shah Masoud, a leader of anti-Taliban guerrillas.

In addition, police say Hassan was part of a reconnaissance operation on U.S. embassies in Brussels and The Hague for possible attacks, the Italian official said. A U.S. official in Rome said Friday that he did not have enough information on the arrests to comment.

Intercepted conversations in recent months revealed other plots in the making, investigators said. The suspects allegedly talked about arrangements for obtaining explosives in the south of France, according to investigators. In September, they referred to an imminent "soccer game"--suspected code for a terrorist act. And they allegedly said they would take revenge on Italy for its support of the U.S. campaign against terrorism.

"You'll see what happens now in Italy, now they are causing problems," a suspect named Nassim said in a wiretapped conversation described by an investigator. "Maybe you'll find 300 or 400 dead in the subway."

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