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Hungarian Police Arrest Suspects in Attempted Attack on Jewish Museum - 2004-04-13

Hungarian police say they have prevented a terrorist attack on a Jewish museum in the capital and arrested three suspects of Arab origin. Police raids came as Israeli President Moshe Katsav arrived in Hungary for a three-day visit.

Hungarian police officials say special forces in cooperation with the country's secret service raided five locations in Budapest and arrested three terrorist suspects of Arab origin.

The main suspect has been identified as a 42-year Hungarian citizen of Palestinian descent who was the Imam of a small Islamic community in Hungary's capital. The two others were described as Syrians. The three men, whose names were not released, have been charged with involvement in planning a terrorist attack, which under Hungarian law, is punishable by up to ten years imprisonment.

The high commissioner of the Hungarian National Police, Laszlo Salgo, told VOA the group planned to target the Jewish community.

"The perpetrators wanted to blow up a Jewish museum," he said. "Not a specific one, but in general terms a Jewish museum. There are not too many [here] but some of them can be found in Hungary."

The high commissioner and other officials have denied reports the three planned to assassinate Israeli President Moshe Katsav, who arrived in Budapest Tuesday to open the Holocaust Memorial Center later this week.

But Mr. Salgo says the president's visit was one of the reasons why the police speeded up the tracking and capture of the suspects.

"This was one of the facts we took into consideration," he said. "After Madrid, this information is very sensitive. And in the morning my colleagues decided to get it into force. I mean the pre-trial arrests and the house searches because they could not expect more information, taking into consideration the stage of the criminal investigation, the undercover investigation I mean."

He was referring to the March 11 bombing of trains in Madrid that killed 191 people.

Hungarian investigators have not ruled out that the three men, who have been monitored since November 2003, had links with the terror group al-Qaida, which claimed responsibility for the September 11 attacks in the United States.

But speaking through an interpreter, the political state secretary of the Hungarian interior ministry, Tibor Pal, played down the risk of terror attacks in Hungary.

"Hungary and the Hungarian people are not targets of terrorist organizations, as we haven't been targets so far," he said.

But the arrests will add to the political pressure on the Hungarian government, which is a staunch supporter of the U.S.-led operations in Iraq, to withdraw its forces from that country.