Police sweep nets 14 terror suspects ahead of elections

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MADRID (AP) — Police arrested 14 suspected Islamic militants in early morning raids yesterday, amid fears the men were plotting a terrorist attack in Barcelona, the interior minister said.

The suspects, 12 Pakistanis and two Indian nationals, were arrested less than two months before national elections in Spain. The country’s last vote in March 2004 was held just after the Madrid train bombings — Europe’s worst Islamist-linked terror attack.

There are fears that Islamic militants could try a similar plot to disrupt this year’s vote, scheduled for March 9.

Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba gave no details on what sort of an attack was purportedly being plotted, but said authorities found four timers and other explosives-related material in some of the suspects’ homes.

“When someone has timers at home you have no option but to think violent acts are being planned,” he said, adding that more arrests are expected and the country was on high security alert.

The minister said the arrests — many which reportedly took place in Barcelona’s Raval neighborhood — were prompted by information from several unspecified European intelligence agencies. Raval is home to one of Spain’s largest concentrations of Pakistani immigrants.

Civil Guard officers made the arrests as part of raids planned with the National Intelligence Center, the Spanish equivalent of the CIA, Mr. Rubalcaba said. Five homes were searched overnight, he said, and Spanish newspapers reported that a mosque and an unauthorized prayer center had also been targeted.

Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero confirmed the arrests and said investigations are continuing.

Europe’s worst Islamist-linked terror attack took place in Spain on March 11, 2004, when bombs went off in train cars during the morning rush hour near Madrid’s Atocha station. The attack killed 191 persons and injured more than 1,800. Twenty-one persons have been convicted of involvement in that attack.

The Madrid train attacks were claimed by Muslim militants who said they had acted on behalf of al Qaeda to avenge the presence of Spanish troops in Iraq, but Spain’s courts found no evidence that al Qaeda ordered, knew about or financed the attacks.

Three days after the carnage, Spaniards ousted the conservative party of Jose Maria Aznar, a staunch Washington ally who had backed the U.S.-led war in Iraq. His successor, Mr. Zapatero, fulfilled an electoral pledge and brought the troops home shortly after taking power.

Since the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, Spanish police have arrested hundreds of Islamic terrorism suspects, many in connection with the Madrid attack.

In recent years police also have focused on cells suspected of recruiting mujahedeen fighters and suicide bombers, or of collecting money to finance al Qaeda-linked groups abroad.

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