Seventeen Algerians and Tunisians were arrested across Europe yesterday in an anti-terrorism operation led by Italian authorities. Italian police said the suspects were arrested in Italy, Britain, France and Portugal as part of a major anti-terror sweep against a cell based in northern Italy that was recruiting would-be suicide bombers to carry out attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The suspects were wanted on charges ranging from association with the aim of committing international terrorism to falsifying documents to aid illegal immigrants.
Eleven suspects were arrested in the northern Italian cities of Milan, Reggio Emilia, Imperia and Bergamo, while nine were arrested on warrants issued in France, Britain and Portugal, Italian news agencies reported. Portuguese police confirmed one person was arrested in Portugal.
Italian Interior Minister Giuliano Amato praised the operation as an example of strong cooperation among European countries. Amato said the suspects were primarily Tunisian.
Italian police said the main cell was based in the northern region of Lombardy, and that intercepted phone calls indicated that the roots of militancy in the group dated back as far as 1998. The group also exhibited signs of caution, with one member saying, "things are being done with extreme calm, haste does not bring the desired results," a transcript of one of the intercepted calls read.
"Once more, the central role of Milan and Lombardy in the panorama of Islamic militants has been confirmed," the Italian military police said in a statement.
Police executing the warrants discovered al-Qaeda manuals on how to produce explosives, detonation devices and poisons as well as instructions on guerrilla techniques.
The leaders of the group were named in the arrest warrants as Dridi Sabri, Mehidi Ben Nasr and Imed Ben Zarkaoui, all of whom operated out of Italy, the Italian news agency ANSA reported.
"The cells were not planning attacks in Italy but were indoctrinating and recruiting people to send to places where terrorist attacks are an everyday activity," Giampaolo Ganzer of the Milan anti-terrorism police told a news conference.
The police investigation began in 2003, he said, adding that three suspects were still at large. Police originally said 20 people had been arrested.