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Police in Italy and Belgium Arrest Terror Suspects - 2004-06-08

Police in Italy and Belgium have arrested at least 17 suspected Islamic extremists in a coordinated operation. Officials in both countries say they believe the men were planning an attack.

The raids came late Monday night in both countries. The key arrest was that of Rabei Osman Sayed Ahmed, otherwise known as Mohammed the Egyptian, who was picked up along with his landlord by Italian police in a Milan suburb.

Spanish and Italian officials are quoted as describing Mohammed the Egyptian as one of the main perpetrators of the March 11 train bombings in Madrid that killed 191 people. Spanish officials say they will ask Italy to extradite him.

Maurizio Romanelli, the Italian investigating magistrate in charge of the case, gave few details about the arrest of the two men but told reporters in Milan that Italian police decided to act now out of concern the suspects were planning another attack.

He says, we don't believe they were planning an attack in Italy. But we had an uneasy feeling about something happening elsewhere, so we decided to intervene.

Judge Romanelli says Italian police had been monitoring Mohammed the Egyptian's phone calls. He says some of the phone intercepts contained what he called significant references to the Madrid bombings.

Spanish officials have linked Mohammed the Egyptian to Serhane Abdelmajid Fakhet, otherwise known as the Tunisian, whom they consider the ringleader of the Madrid bombers. He and six other suspects blew themselves up in a suburban Madrid apartment on April 3rd just as Spanish police were closing in on them.

In Belgium, a federal prosecutor said 15 suspected Islamic militants were arrested in a series of raids in Brussels and Antwerp. Prosecutor Daniel Bernard is quoted by local broadcast media as saying the men - Egyptians, Jordanians, Moroccans and Palestinians - were not necessarily linked to the Madrid bombings. But he says Belgian police acted after being tipped off by their Italian counterparts.

Mr. Bernard says Italian and Belgian police believe the men were preparing to carry out an attack on a third country but are not sure which one.