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Spain Arrests 5 Suspects in Tunisia Temple Blast

March 08, 2003|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — Spanish investigators arrested five men Friday in connection with the bombing of a synagogue in Tunisia last year that allegedly was commanded by a recently captured Al Qaeda kingpin.

Investigators with the paramilitary Guardia Civil arrested four suspects in the Mediterranean port city of Valencia and a fifth in the northern city of Logrono, Spanish authorities said Friday evening. The suspects in Valencia are of Tunisian origin, authorities said. The ethnicity of the fifth was not clear.

All five men are suspected members of a network in Spain, France and Germany that played a role in the suicide bombing of a synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba last April.

The attack killed 21 people, mostly German tourists, and allegedly was directed via satellite phone by Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the Al Qaeda operations chief arrested in Pakistan last weekend.

Spanish authorities didn't say whether Friday's arrests were a direct result of the capture of Mohammed, whom U.S. officials accuse of being the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks and other plots. But Spanish investigators said evidence gathered by Pakistani and U.S. agents who arrested Mohammed pointed at suspected Al Qaeda operatives in Spain and Switzerland.

And last year, Spanish investigators identified a number of Islamic extremists in Valencia who were linked to the network that carried out the Djerba bombing, according to a high-ranking Spanish law enforcement official.

Police had been watching suspects in Valencia for months, the official said.

Mohammed's capture may have triggered their arrest. His downfall, seen as a major blow to the Al Qaeda terrorist network, has spurred police in Europe and the United States to close in on members of his network who could either carry out attacks or go deeper underground.

Spanish authorities said Friday that the Guardia Civil made the five arrests based on a request by French authorities. Judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere, France's top anti-terrorism magistrate, had issued a warrant for Mohammed last week identifying him as the mastermind of the Djerba bombing.

French authorities declined to comment Friday other than to confirm that their investigation had produced leads about the involvement of suspects in Spain.

Valencia has been a hub of activity for Islamic terrorist networks in Spain.

*

Special correspondent Cristina Mateo Yungas in Madrid contributed to this report.

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