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France busts terror cells with links to Chechnya, al-Qaida

| Saturday, Dec. 28, 2002

PARIS (AP) - French authorities dismantled a terror cell with ties to Chechen rebels and al-Qaida that planned bomb or toxic gas attacks in France and Russia, the Interior Ministry said Friday.

The announcement followed the arrests this week of four alleged Islamic militants in suburban Paris, ending a sweep in which several suspects were detained by France's counterintelligence agency, the DST.

The sweep came during a probe of networks thought to be involved in secretly sending fighters to breakaway Chechnya to battle Russian troops.

"At this stage of the investigation, we can surmise that the operational group in France has been dismantled and the plot it was preparing has been thwarted," the ministry said.

Among suspected targets were the Russian Embassy in Paris and Russians in the breakaway republic of Chechnya, the ministry said.

Counterterrorism agents have carried out at least a half-dozen raids, mainly in suburban Paris, in the last month as part of French efforts to guard against a possible attack during the holidays.

Among those taken into custody was Frenchman Menad Benchellali, who sent both his brother and another man to train in Afghanistan in 2001. Both men were captured by the United States and are being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Benchellali family has filed a complaint accusing Washington of detaining Mourad Benchellali illegally and has asked to see him. U.S. officials have refused.

Also captured was Algerian Merouane Benahmed, a former militant with the radical Algerian insurgency movement Armed Islamic Group and an expert in bomb-making and electronics, the ministry said.

Benahmed, Menad Benchellali and a third suspect, Nourredine Merabet, trained with Chechen rebels and met "high-level al-Qaida operatives" in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, which borders Chechnya to the south, according to the ministry.

Judicial officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Benchellali was the group's chemicals expert, and admitted during questioning to having met with high-level al-Qaida operatives.

The suspects had targeted Russian interests in France to "avenge" the death of Chechen leaders fighting against Russian forces and the killing of Chechen hostage-takers who led a failed raid on a Moscow theater in October, the ministry said.

Four suspects were arrested Tuesday in the Paris suburb of Romainville, four others were captured Dec. 16 in the nearby town of La Courneuve, and Merabet was seized over the weekend on the French-Spanish border.

Late Friday, the four captured in Romainville - three Algerians and Benchellali - were put under investigation for criminal association with a terrorist enterprise. The move marks a legal step just short of filing charges and means they will remain in custody.

One of the suspects told investigators he practiced building bombs with the goal of targeting Russians in Chechnya and Israelis in the Middle East, the ministry said.

Another person, not identified but apparently not among those arrested, confirmed the account and said that the Russian Embassy in Paris was among the likely targets, the ministry statement said.

The ministry said one of the suspects, who was not identified, had a background in chemistry and had spent time in Afghanistan and in Georgia in 2001.

That suspect admitted to writing a list found in the Tuesday raid in Romainville that contained the names of chemicals and prices for each one.

The raids also turned up diagrams of chemical formulas for explosives and a substance that, when subjected to heat or put in contact with water, would release a highly toxic gas, judicial officials said.

In Tuesday's operation, counterterrorism agents also found electronic components, a motorcycle battery, and an unidentified substance hidden in hair treatment bottles, the officials said.

The La Courneuve raid turned up a suit to protect against chemical and biological attacks and radiation, two empty gas canisters, false identity papers and electronic equipment. Electronic systems were made "to ignite explosives from a distance with the aid of cell phones," the Interior Ministry said.

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