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Friday, 24 January, 2003, 22:11 GMT
'Major al-Qaeda attack foiled'
Spanish police during operation
More than 150 police took part in the operation
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar says police have thwarted a "major terrorist attack", following the arrest of 16 suspected al-Qaeda militants in the north-eastern Catalonia region.

Jose Maria Aznar
The dismantled network has connections with terrorists arrested recently in France and Britain who were preparing to carry out attacks, using explosives and chemical materials

Prime Minister Aznar
Mr Aznar described the arrests as an extraordinarily important strike in the war against terror, adding that explosives and chemical materials were seized.

More than 150 anti-terrorist police agents took part in the pre-dawn swoop against the suspected al-Qaeda cells in more than a dozen apartments in Barcelona and elsewhere in Catalonia.

Mr Aznar said the group had connections to people recently arrested in Britain and France.

They have now been brought to Madrid, where they will be held in police custody before being brought before magistrates for questioning.

The arrests come two days after an operation in Italy to arrest five Moroccans on charges of illegal possession of explosives.

The BBC's security correspondent Frank Gardner said there had been an unprecedented level of co-operation between the intelligence services of several European countries including Britain's MI6.

Suspicious chemicals

Mr Aznar, speaking in the north-western city of La Coruna, said those arrested had links to Algerian militant groups.

Materials seized in raid
Bomb-making components were seized in the raids
"[The police] have broken up a major terrorist network... linked in this case to the Algerian Salafist group, a splinter of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which has clear connections with the criminal organisation of Bin Laden," he said.

Interior Minister Angel Acebes said suspicious resins, fuels and other chemicals were being examined, along with electronic equipment, detonators and remote controls for use in bomb-making.

Mr Acebes said the suspects were divided into two groups, both led by Algerians.

A suspect named as Mohamad Tahraqui was said to be in charge of the Barcelona-based group, while the other operated out of Banolas in neighbouring Gerona province under the leadership of a man named as Bard Eddin Ferdji.

The raids, which were ordered by Judge Guillermo Ruiz Polanco, took place after a lengthy investigation assisted by the French and British authorities.

The BBC's Margaret Gilmore says there has been a massive anti-terrorist investigation in the UK since the discovery of traces of ricin in a north London flat several weeks ago.

The investigation unearthed a huge number of names and phone numbers of terrorism suspects all over Europe which have been passed on to intelligence officers in the relevant countries.

Al-Qaeda meetings

"The dismantled network has connections with terrorists arrested recently in France and Britain who were preparing to carry out attacks, using explosives and chemical materials," Mr Aznar said.

Man being arrested during the raids
Most of those arrested were Algerian
"I want to highlight once again that when we talk about the fight against terrorism and the circles around it and when we talk about ensuring the safety and the peace of all, we are not talking about fantasies," he added.

Over the course of the past year, Spain has arrested about 20 people thought to have links with the militant Islamic organisation.

However, many of these have been released on bail because of lack of evidence.

Several of the arrests have taken place in Catalonia, which has a large immigrant population from North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.

Spain is thought to have hosted a number of important meetings by top al-Qaeda operatives in the run-up to the 11 September attacks on the United States.

Mohammed Atta, who led the attacks, is known to have visited Spain twice in the months leading up to them.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Ben Brown
"This was one of the biggest anti terrorist operations since September 11"
Dr John Gearson, Terrorism expert
"These are opportunistic individuals"
The BBC's Claire Marshall
"According to Spain's interior minister, most of those arrested are of Algerian origin"

Key stories

European probe

Background

IN DEPTH
See also:

24 Jan 03 | Politics
24 Jan 03 | Europe
18 Nov 01 | Europe
22 Jan 03 | Country profiles
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