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Terror Trial Opens in Belgium - 2003-05-22

The trial of 23 suspects accused of plotting al-Qaida-related terrorist attacks in Europe has opened amid tight security in Brussels. Two of the men are also accused of involvement in the assassination of an anti-Taleban leader in Afghanistan just before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States.

Rarely has easygoing Belgium seen such extreme security measures. With the courthouse surrounded by armored vehicles and barricades, dozens of police patrolled the approaches to the building, and anyone attending the trial had to pass through metal detectors and hand in mobile phones as a precaution.

Nerves are on edge in Brussels, following recent terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia and Morocco, heightened security alerts in both the United States and Europe, and a purported message from an al-Qaida leader Wednesday urging more suicide attacks against western targets. Many Belgians fear their country may be on the terrorist hit list because it hosts both NATO and the European Union.

The two key figures in the trial are Tunisians. One is Nizar Trabelsi, a former professional football player who has publicly confessed to being an admirer of al-Qaida chieftain Osama bin Laden. Another defendant is Tarek Maaroufi, who is suspected of being the main al-Qaida recruiter in Belgium.

Nizar Trabelsi is accused of planning several attacks against U.S. targets in Europe, most notably a Belgian air force base which local environmentalists and anti-nuclear campaigners say houses U.S. tactical nuclear warheads.

He was arrested at his Brussels apartment two days after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States. Police found explosives and firearms in the apartment, and he has admitted targeting the base.

But Mr. Trabelsi has strongly denied a charge levied against him by French investigators that he was involved in a plot to blow up the American embassy in Paris around the time of the September 11 attacks. French police say Mr. Trabelsi was to have driven a bomb-laden truck through the gates of the embassy in a suicide attack.

Tarek Maaroufi is accused of having recruited two other North Africans into al-Qaida and sent them off to Afghanistan in September 2001. The two men, posing as journalists and carrying stolen Belgian passports, secured an interview with the legendary anti-Taleban commander, Ahmed Shah Masood, and killed him - and themselves - with a bomb hidden inside a television camera.

Italian prosecutors say Tarek Maaroufi is a key al-Qaida operative who has been in close touch with members of the terrorist organization in Italy. Before he was arrested in December 2001 in Brussels, Italian police had sought his extradition but were turned down by the Belgians because Mr. Maaroufi is a naturalized Belgian citizen, and Belgium does not extradite its own nationals.

The two key suspects and six other men face up to 10 years in jail if convicted on charges ranging from possession of firearms to belonging to a criminal organization and recruiting for a foreign armed force.

The trial is expected to go on until the end of June.