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German Court Convicts 4 Algerians in Terror Plot - 2003-03-10

A German court has convicted four Algerian men of plotting to bomb a busy Christmas market in the French city of Strasbourg, and sentenced them to prison terms of 10-12 years. The plot was foiled by German police just before it was to have taken place in late December 2000.

In handing down the Frankfurt court's sentence, presiding Judge Karlheinz Zeiher said the four men had intended to kill defenseless people with the aim of spreading terror in France and throughout Europe. He said they wanted to punish France because of its support for the Algerian government.

Judge Zeiher said the four planned to place a bomb in the middle of the square in Strasbourg, where the city's cathedral is located and a Christmas market is held every year.

The bomb, he said, consisted of one or more pressure cookers packed with explosives, a technique he said three of the men learned while training at an al-Qaida camp in Afghanistan.

But the prosecution was unable to establish solid links between the defendants and the organization led by Osama bin Laden and, earlier this year, dropped charges that the men belonged to a terrorist group, because it would have been too time-consuming to prove.

Shortly before the bombing was to have occurred, German police raided two Frankfurt apartments rented by the men, and found detonators and large quantities of chemicals that could be used to make explosives. They also found a home-made videotape of the crowded Strasbourg square made by two of the defendants, featuring the voice of one saying, "these are the enemies of God. They will burn in Hell."

Only one of the men admitted that the group intended to bomb the Christmas market. Two others said their target was what they described as an empty synagogue in Strasbourg, an argument the panel of five judges rejected as absurd. The fourth man refused to testify throughout the trial, which began in April 2002.

When the men were arrested in December 2000, police said they belonged to an Algerian Islamic extremist organization with links to al-Qaida and terrorist cells in Britain and Italy. The leader of the Frankfurt cell, Mohammed Bensakhria, was arrested in Spain in July 2001 and extradited to France, where he is now awaiting trial for planning terrorist attacks.