Tue, Nov 22, 2005 - Page 7 News List

Morocco detains 17 terror suspects linked to al-Qaeda

AP , RABAT, MOROCCO

Moroccan police have dismantled a terrorist network, arresting 17 people, including two former prisoners at the US base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the official MAP news agency reported. At least some of the suspects were linked to al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Brahim Benchekroun and Mohammed Mazouz -- among five Moroccans freed from Guantanamo Bay in August last year -- were among the suspects, the news agency said on Sunday.

They were arrested on Nov. 11 at their homes in connection with a probe into al-Qaeda, a Moroccan security official said.

Information about the network, dismantled before it was fully structured, remained sketchy, and it was unclear when the 15 other arrests were made.

The top two suspects, Khaled Azig and Mohamed Rha, were recruiting extremists for their cause, MAP quoted police as saying. Members of the network had links with small groups on the Iraqi border and close ties to leading members of the al-Qaeda terror network, MAP reported.

No details were provided, including the exact nature of the link to al-Qaeda.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq is reportedly holding two Moroccan Embassy employees, Abdelkrim el-Mouhafidi and his driver, Abderrahim Boualam. They disappeared on Oct. 20 while driving to Baghdad from Jordan.

Morocco's intelligence services have been tracking Azig, one of the two lead suspects in the network, since March. A Moroccan, he once studied theology in Syria and made frequent trips to Turkey, but returned to Morocco in June, MAP quoted police as saying.

Azig was joined on Sept. 29 by Rha, a Belgian of Moroccan origin known to have close ties with North Africans in Europe. He also had made trips to Syria, MAP reported.

The two men were in the process of recruiting Islamic extremists when their efforts were cut short by the arrests, the agency said.

Benchekroun and Mazouz, the former Guantanamo prisoners, were among those being recruited, police told the news agency.

Arrested in Pakistan and Afghanistan in late 2001, they were among five Moroccans accused of taking training courses in how to handle firearms and make explosives.

A suspected former bodyguard of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, Abdellah Tabarak, was one of the five released. Turned over to Moroccan authorities in August last year, after two years and eight months in the US detention camp, the five were given provisional freedom. The five all face trial.

Morocco has been tracking Islamic extremists since bombing attacks in Casablanca in 2003 killed 45 people -- 13 of them suicide bombers. The Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group is suspected in the bombings that authorities have said were linked to al-Qaeda. The arrests were announced hours after French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy concluded a meeting with his Moroccan counterpart, Mustapha Sahel, devoted mainly to the fight against terrorism.

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