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Suspect in London Attack Could Fight Extradition

Hussain Osman, a Briton of Ethiopian descent who's wanted in the failed bombings of July 21, appears before a court in Rome.

July 31, 2005|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

ROME — A suspect in the attempted subway bombings in London arrested here made an initial court appearance Saturday, and there were indications he would fight extradition to Britain.

The capture Friday afternoon of a man identified as Hussain Osman, an Ethiopian-born naturalized Briton, culminated an international manhunt for four suspects whose bombs failed to detonate July 21, in an act that would have reprised the devastating attacks of two weeks earlier.

Two of the last suspects were arrested in London on Friday, while Osman managed to get as far as Rome, taking high-speed trains under the English Channel to Paris and down into Italy. British and Italian police tracked him to his brother's apartment in a working-class suburb here by monitoring his cellular telephone calls.

A court-appointed attorney said after a brief meeting Saturday with her client that she did not think he wanted to return to London.

If Osman fights extradition, he could delay his return by weeks. But that would not impede Scotland Yard investigators seeking to join their Italian colleagues in interrogating the 27-year-old suspect here. British police Saturday also continued questioning the three suspects caught there last week.

The initial interrogation of Osman, whose name police believe is an alias, sent Italian police on raids across the country Saturday. They executed 15 search warrants focusing on immigrants and others with whom Osman was believed to have been in contact and who might have assisted his flight.

Italian authorities said Saturday that Osman, whose real name is thought to be Hamdi Isaac, was able to make his way through Italy thanks to a network of Ethiopian, Eritrean and Somali immigrants, including the father of his fiancee, who lives in the northern Italian city of Brescia. Osman speaks Italian relatively well, they said, because he previously lived in Italy.

"It has been possible to identify a dense network of individuals belonging to the Eritrean and Ethiopian communities in Italy that are believed to have served as cover for the fugitive," Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu said Saturday.

Pisanu, appearing before parliament, added that some countries in the Horn of Africa, such as former Italian colony Ethiopia, have become an area of fomentation for the Al Qaeda terrorist network "from where it tends in various ways to dispatch its followers to Europe."

Italy frequently serves as a transit point for immigrants from northern and eastern Africa, who arrive illegally on its southern shores or who come in legally thanks to cooperation agreements Italy has with its former colonies.

Pisanu spoke during a session at which emergency anti-terrorism legislation was approved to allow authorities to detain suspects for a longer period without charges, force suspects to give DNA samples and stiffen penalties against those who intentionally conceal their faces.

Italian investigators are especially interested in determining whether Osman might have been planning attacks in Italy, a prospect that the investigators said did not seem likely. Italy, whose government has supported the U.S. war in Iraq, has been on edge since receiving repeated threats from Al Qaeda sympathizers.

"So far, I think he only arrived as a fugitive," said a senior Italian prosecutor involved in the case. "But we are looking into it."

At this point, investigators think the more likely scenario is that he was planning to continue fleeing: He had obtained false documents through his brother, an Italian law enforcement official said. The brother is also under arrest.

The prosecutor said Italy expected to receive a formal extradition petition from Britain on Monday in which European Union rules facilitating joint arrests and custody transfers would be applied.

Osman was arrested in his brother's apartment, which neighbors said was frequented by a stream of Somali, Ethiopian and Eritrean immigrants. Neighbors who watched the police operation Friday evening said then and again Saturday that they were surprised by the arrests.

"They always seemed gentle," said Andrea Barbieri, a neighbor. "I'd never have thought I was talking to a terrorist."

Barbieri said he knocked on the apartment door Thursday to ask to borrow aspirin. The person who answered the door opened it barely a crack when he gave Barbieri the aspirin, as though he did not want him to see inside.

The doorman at the building, who gave only his first name, Marco, said he had seen 10 people, all East Africans, using the apartment in the last year or so. He said they never received mail and spoke Italian surprisingly well.

Police are examining computer discs, papers, agendas, phone books and videotapes confiscated from the apartment.

Osman's Italian attorney said no formal charges had been filed against her client. He had given statements to the police, she said, but she recoiled at the suggestion that he was cooperating. The case is at "an absolutely delicate point," said the attorney, Antonietta Sonnessa, adding that no decisions had been made about a defense strategy or how to fight extradition.

She spoke to a crush of reporters who pursued her outside the prison, along the Tiber River, where Osman's hearing was held.

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