Sat, May 24, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Trial of 23 alleged Islamist extremists starts in Brussels


One of Europe's most significant terror trials since September 11 began in Belgium on Thursday with prosecutors seeking to establish the guilt of 23 alleged Islamist extremists.

One of the main defendants, Nizar Trabelsi, is accused of plotting to bomb targets throughout Europe, including the US embassy in Paris and a Belgian air force base which activists claim houses tactical nuclear weapons.

Trabelsi, 32, a former professional football player, admits planning an attack on the Kleine Brogel airbase where 110 US personnel are stationed, but denies the embassy plot. Another defendant, Tarek Maaroufi, 37, is accused of facilitating the assassination of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the leader of the Afghan Northern Alliance, just days before the September 11 attacks on the US.

He is said to have procured false Belgian passports for the assassins who posed as journalists and blew up "the Lion of the Panjshir", and to have recruited young men in Belgium for terror training in Afghanistan. He denies all the charges.

Both men, who are of Tunisian origin, are suspected of having close links with al-Qaeda. Trabelsi admits that he met Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. He told the Belgian broadcaster RTBF that he loved Bin Laden "like a father".

"I don't care about everything he has done -- September 11 and all that. I had good relations with him. He helped me and gave me advice."

One of his lawyers, Didier de Quevy, said that his client would plead guilty on several counts. "He agreed to do these things because he was under the influence of Osama bin Laden."

Police found an Uzi submachine gun in Mr Trabelsi's Brussels flat two days after the September 11 attacks and a bomb-making recipe identical to that used in the 1998 US embassy bombings in Africa.

Several key ingredients for the bomb were later found at his brother's property in central Brussels.

Both suspects appeared in the dock at Brussels' Palais de Justice yesterday.

Handcuffed to guards, they were shielded from the gallery behind bulletproof glass while armored police vehicles were stationed outside.

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