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Belgium frees 14 terrorism suspects after one day

December 23, 2007|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

MADRID — A Belgian judge Saturday released 14 suspects rounded up in an anti-terrorism operation the day before, but authorities said the group was still under investigation and police remained on high alert because of fears of an attack in Brussels.

Some Belgian press reports suggested Saturday that the government had jumped the gun the day before in making the arrests and announcing a heightened terrorism alert, complete with special police deployments in subways, airports and other public places in the capital.

But the abrupt reversal was not unusual. Belgian anti-terrorism law makes pretrial detention difficult in comparison with other European countries, officials said, and in previous cases suspects have been arrested, released and then rearrested days or weeks later.

"The investigation goes on," Lieve Pellens, a spokeswoman for the federal prosecutor's office in Brussels, said in a telephone interview Saturday. "Their release does not mean we don't consider them suspects. We still consider them suspects and dangerous. And there is still concern about risk of a terrorist attack in Brussels between the 20th and 30th of December."

Police accused the suspects of planning an armed prison break to free Nizar Trabelsi, a convicted Al Qaeda operative serving a 10-year sentence for planning to commit a suicide bombing on a NATO base in 2001.

In recent days, intelligence reports from Belgian and U.S. spy agencies indicated that the group also planned to carry out an attack in Brussels during the holidays, said a law enforcement official who asked to remain anonymous.

But under Belgian law, that intelligence could not be presented to the judge who questioned the suspects Friday, officials said.

Police also failed to find any guns or explosives in at least 15 searches, despite references in wiretaps to such weapons, officials said.

The suspects include Malika Aroud, the widow of a Tunisian suicide bomber who assassinated Ahmed Shah Massoud, a renowned anti-Taliban leader, in Afghanistan in 2001. Aroud had been communicating with Trabelsi over a cellphone that had been smuggled into the prison and was monitored by police, officials said.

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