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Italy Arrests 5 Members of Extremist Group - 2004-05-09


Five North Africans were arrested in pre-dawn raids in a major anti-terrorist sweep carried out by Italian police. Authorities say the operation dismantled a terrorist cell based in Florence with links to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network.

Police from Genoa and Florence were involved in the anti-terrorist operation. They said four of the men were Tunisians and the fifth was Algerian, all suspected of belonging to an Islamic extremist cell of the Ansar al-Islam group.

Ansar al-Islam is believed to support Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terror network.

Police said the Italian cell was responsible for the recruitment of suicide bombers to send to Iraq for attacks against Western targets. The Tunisians arrested were expected to travel to Syria and Yemen as early as next week.

Authorities said telephone interceptions disclosed that they were then to be provided with arms and explosives by other members of Ansar al-Islam and travel on to Iraq, to carry out suicide attacks.

Searches were carried out Saturday in Genoa, Florence, Siena and Prato and police said suspect material was confiscated. Four of the North Africans were picked up Florence and one in Siena.

Officials said they believed all five were linked to a mosque on the outskirts of Florence. The Algerian was identified as the imam of the mosque.

Another imam from the same Florence mosque, Mohamed Rafik from Morocco, was arrested last October in Rabat in connection with attacks in Casablanca a year ago.

Reacting to the arrests, one Italian politician said the extraordinary operation led to the dismantling of part of the al-Qaida network in Italy but is further evidence that these cells exist and still operate on Italian territory.

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