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Tunisians with Alleged Ties to al-Qaida Convicted in Italy - 2002-02-22

Four Tunisian men with alleged ties to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terror network were convicted in Milan Friday by an Italian court of arms trafficking and criminal association. The men were sentenced to up to five years in prison.

It was the first guilty verdict in Europe relating to the terror organization since the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington.

The four were found guilty of trafficking in arms, explosives and chemicals and falsifying documents and sentenced to up to five years in prison.

One of those convicted, Essid Sami Ben Khemais, is also suspected of being involved in a plan to attack the U.S. embassy in Rome. The attack never took place, but the embassy was closed to the public last year for three days after a security threat.

When he first appeared in court earlier this month, Ben Khemais said he was not a terrorist, just a practicing Muslim.

The prosecution had contended that the four set up a group that provided logistical support for al-Qaida operations in Europe.

Friday's conviction came just days after four Moroccans were arrested in the Italian capital. They were found to be in possession of maps of Rome's water supply network and large quantities of a substance containing cyanide.

Italian police stepped up their anti-terror efforts shortly after the September 11 attacks, following a warning from Washington that symbols of the United States in Italy, as well as symbols of capitalism, could be terrorist targets.