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French Fear a Wider Poison Plot

Police think the traces of ricin found in Paris and an illicit lab discovered earlier in London may be parts of a plan for terrorist attacks.

March 22, 2003|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — Police suspect that the traces of the poison ricin discovered in a train station locker here are connected to recent alleged plots by Al Qaeda to produce the deadly substance in London and to carry out chemical attacks in Paris, authorities said Friday.

The discovery this week of the toxin, which is derived from the castor bean plant and can be used as a biological weapon, was unprecedented in France. It caused concern in a capital that, as a result of the war in Iraq, has gone on heightened alert for possible terrorist attacks.

Anti-terrorist police have focused on an alleged Algerian-dominated network whose operatives are believed to have received specialized training with biological and chemical weapons at Al Qaeda camps in the Russian republic of Chechnya. One of the suspected leaders is Abu Musab Zarqawi, a veteran terrorist who has operated in Iraq with the protection of the Iraqi regime, according to U.S. officials.

In January, British police arrested suspected members of the "Chechen network" during a raid on a makeshift ricin lab in London. That group was linked to cells previously dismantled in the Paris suburbs of Romainville and La Courneuve.

The arrests were part of a crackdown in Britain, France and Spain that may well have averted cyanide gas attacks on the Russian Embassy here in Paris and on the London subway, according to French officials.

France's interior minister said Friday that the new ricin case probably involves the same network.

"One can think that there are ties, without being certain, to the Al Qaeda movement and the teams that were arrested in Romainville and La Courneuve," said Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy. "But no information at our disposal leads us to affirm that France was targeted."

Along with two flasks that tested positive for ricin traces, police found three more flasks containing ethanol and acetone in the luggage locker at the Gare de Lyon, the interior minister said.

Police are investigating possible connections to the London case -- in particular whether the ricin found in Paris came from the clandestine lab discovered by British investigators, law enforcement officials said. The authorities are also trying to determine whether a ricin lab has been operating in France, a French law enforcement official said.

Relatively few Al Qaeda operatives in Europe know how to produce and use ricin, according to the law enforcement official.

"This takes special training," the official said. "There are not a lot of people with this expertise."

The case has contributed to longtime fears that war in Iraq will provoke terror strikes in Europe, especially on U.S. and British targets, by Al Qaeda and other groups intent on retaliating for the invasion of a Muslim country.

Ricin's most effective use would be in assassinations rather than mass-casualty attacks. Even a few deaths could cause disproportionate panic because the poison has no antidote and can kill within hours if ingested or injected.

"A successful killing with ricin would have worldwide symbolic impact greater than a conventional explosive that killed more people," said Roland Jacquard, a counter-terrorism consultant to the French government and the United Nations. "This is a network that has been trained especially for suicide attacks with chemical and biological weapons."

The flasks under investigation were left in a plastic bag in a rented luggage locker at the Gare de Lyon on Saturday afternoon. Two days later, railroad security guards conducted a periodic check of all the lockers as part of a nationwide state of alert. A security guard became suspicious when he noticed the flasks were sealed with plaster. One flask was labeled "X-4 Pakistan."

Police set up surveillance at the station, but no one returned for the bag, officials said. Military technicians identified the chemicals Thursday, and the Interior Ministry announced the results.

Investigators were checking the flasks and locker for fingerprints and DNA material. They also reviewed footage from security cameras at the train station. But there were no signs of progress in the investigation Friday.

Two suspected members of the Chechen network were arrested north of Paris on Tuesday, but law enforcement officials would not discuss possible ties to the ricin.

In another development Friday involving the same network, a Spanish judge released 14 of 16 Algerians detained in January as suspected accomplices of the suspects in suburban Paris. The arrests were made on the request of a French judge based on evidence of support cells active in Spain, but the case caused friction with Spanish law enforcement authorities. The Spanish judge ruled that the evidence was sufficient to hold only two of the men.

Meanwhile, a German judge was analyzing evidence before deciding whether to charge a suspect with planning to commit terrorist acts timed to the invasion of Iraq. The unidentified suspect was one of six, including the imam of a Berlin mosque, rounded up this week during searches of the mosque, an Islamic center and other buildings.

The detainees in Berlin were suspected of forming a terrorist group with the intention of recruiting Arab students and planning bombings in Germany. Five were released Friday.

The German government is sensitive to the fact that the country played host to terrorist cells involved in the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. as well as an aborted plan to bomb a cathedral and an outdoor market across the border in France. But German laws have made criminal charges of terrorist membership difficult to prosecute.

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Times staff writer Henry Chu in Berlin contributed to this report.

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