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French Inquiry Clears Paris Airport Worker of Terrorism

Prosecutors announce the arrest of two men, one of whom police say confessed to setting up the baggage handler because of a family feud.

January 11, 2003|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — Prosecutors on Friday released an airport baggage handler who had been under investigation for terrorism after a key witness confessed to helping frame the man by planting guns and explosives in his car, French authorities said.

The case took a headlong turn two weeks after the arrest of Abdrazak Besseghir, a Frenchman of Algerian descent, in a case that raised fears of a terrorist infiltration at France's busiest airport. Coming during a wave of arrests of Algerians suspected of plotting attacks here, the investigation had widened to Besseghir's family and co-workers and resulted in tightened security at airports that were already on high alert.

But authorities said Friday that they had cleared Besseghir, 27, who has had an excellent work record during his three years of loading and unloading planes at Charles de Gaulle International Airport. And prosecutors announced the arrest of two men accused of conspiring with Besseghir's in-laws to set him up as part of a bitter family feud.

"I still trust the justice system," Besseghir told television reporters, cradling his 1-year-old son at home in the Seine-Saint-Denis area, a heavily immigrant community that has been the scene of many anti-terrorist raids. "I have no hatred toward anyone."

Besseghir's reaction was restrained despite the fact that he had become the subject of aggressive media coverage in which some had described him as a potential new breed of undercover terrorist.

His misfortune seemed the byproduct of an edgy, grim mood in a Europe on guard against a danger within.

The threat of violent Islamic extremism is real in the slums of Paris and other European big cities, where fears of bombings and chemical and biological attacks by the Al Qaeda network have police and soldiers out in force at airports, train stations and other public places. But the threat also translates into fear and indignity endured by many second- and third-generation French Muslims during aggressive street stops, identity checks and anti-terrorist raids that often cast a broad net.

Besseghir endured the nightmare of every young, working-class North African here: He was jailed along with his father, uncle and two brothers, in a common tactic of terrorism investigators here, who methodically round up and question a suspect's inner circle. The father and brothers were released within a day, but the uncle remains in jail, accused of being an illegal immigrant.

"Of course there was a legitimate reason to investigate. I myself thought it might be a case of arms being smuggled to Algeria," said commentator Antoine Sfeir, an editor of Les Cahiers de l'Orient, a Paris-based quarterly about Arab affairs. "And there is real recruiting going on among young people by terrorists. At the same time, though, there is a kind of Islamophobia. These are tough times for young North Africans."

The turning point in the case was the confession Thursday of Marcel Le Hir, a former paratrooper who works in private security, according to officials at the anti-terrorist division of the Paris prosecutor's office.

Le Hir had gone to airport police Dec. 28 to report that he had been crossing an airport parking lot when he saw Besseghir in uniform loading a gun by the trunk of his car. A police search turned up five bricks of Yugoslav-made plastic explosives, fuses, detonators, a machine gun and a pistol in the trunk.

Although Besseghir had no known ties to extremists, investigators thought that he might be an accomplice of terrorists preparing an attack or smuggling arms.

Nonetheless, police turned their sights on Le Hir when an analysis of his cell phone showed that he had called a man named Patrick Pouchoulin 50 times in December, the last time just minutes before accusing the baggage handler, officials said. Detectives then discovered that Pouchoulin knew the family of Besseghir's wife, Luisa, who died in a fire last year.

Le Hir has admitted that he had been approached by Pouchoulin as an intermediary for the family, according to officials. The two men engineered the set-up along with an unidentified member of the family who planted the weapons and explosives, officials allege.

The family in-laws wanted revenge because they still suspect Besseghir of setting the fire that killed his wife, an official at the prosecutor's office said.

"The fire was ruled suicide, but the family never believed that," the official said. "Although this case at the airport was treated as possible terrorism, the police also continued to investigate Besseghir's claim that his in-laws framed him. The police were very prudent and objective."

The two suspects are charged with making false and slanderous accusations and possession of illegal arms.

Further arrests are expected, officials said.

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