France: Foiled attack on Russian Embassy

Dec. 27, 2002 at 4:22 PM

PARIS, Dec. 27 (UPI) -- Suspected Islamist extremists arrested by French authorities during several pre-Christmas raids were planning terrorist strikes against the Russian Embassy in France and other Russian targets, France's Interior Ministry announced Friday.

The ministry identified several of the nine suspects, rounded up between Dec. 16 and Dec. 24, as North Africans who had allegedly spent time in Afghanistan or Georgia, and met with al Qaida operatives and Chechen extremists. All are now in French prisons.

Those arrested "wanted to commit attacks against Russian interests and particularly the Russian Embassy in Paris," the ministry said in a statement, citing confessions by several suspects.

One, Merouane Benahmed, is a former top commander of Algeria's terrorist Armed Islamic Group, or GIA, according to the Interior Ministry.

Another, Menad Benchellali, was allegedly responsible for sending his brother, Mourad, and a colleague to fight alongside Taliban forces in Afghanistan. The two are currently imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay, the French ministry said.

"At this stage of the investigation, we can assume the operational group in France has been dismantled, and the project they were preparing prevented," the statement said.

According to French authorities, the suspects have also confessed to plotting attacks against Russian targets in Chechnya, and against Israeli interests in Israel or in the Palestinian territories.

The Interior Ministry said the group wanted to avenge the deaths of two top commandos in Chechnya -- an Arab known as Ibn al Khatab, and another "brother," al Moutana, who apparently was poisoned.

But the alleged planned attacks were said to have been mainly intended to retaliate against the killing of Chechen commandos who hijacked a Moscow theatre in October.

French police rounded up four people Dec. 16 in the Paris suburb of La Courneuve.

French Interior Ministry Nicolas Sarkozy initially suggested the group may have been planning a chemical or biological attack, after authorities also seized a quantity of suspect powders and liquids.

Although lab tests showed no conclusive evidence, the government maintains the group was fabricating electronic devices that could be used for a remote-controlled explosion.

A fifth suspect was arrested as he tried to cross the Spanish border into France.

Four more were arrested Tuesday during a raid at Romainville, another Paris suburb. Police seized equipment needed to make false documents, as well as material that could be used in bombs, the government said.

Several of those arrested had connections in Georgia and Afghanistan with "high operational officials of al Qaida -- specialists in toxic products," according to the ministry.

If the Interior Ministry's assertions are proved, the arrests are among the most important in France since the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001.

Last year, French and European authorities allegedly foiled a planned attack against the American Embassy in Paris. But earlier this month, a Dutch court freed several suspects tied to the reported plot, claiming the evidence against them was insufficient.

Like elsewhere in Europe and the United States, France has been on high alert against possible terrorist attacks this holiday season, and the government has reinforced key tourist attractions like the Eiffel Tower.

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