Wednesday, January 1, 2003

PARIS, Jan. 1 (UPI) — A Paris-area airport baggage clerk, whose car trunk contained a stash of explosives and weapons, appeared in court Wednesday on charges of “association of evildoers in relation with a terrorist enterprise” and of violating French weapons laws.

But four days after his arrest, the case remains murky against Abderezak Besseghir, 27, an employee at the Charles de Gaulle airport who had an exemplary work background, no police record, and no known links to Islamist groups.

A Frenchman of Algerian origin, Besseghir has denied any wrongdoing. He reportedly claimed the weapons trove found Saturday — which French police say included two loaded pistols, more than 2 pounds of plastic explosives, and two detonators — could have been masterminded by vengeful in-laws seeking custody of his child.

Besseghir’s wife died in a suspicious fire at the family’s home last summer. Police originally considered Besseghir a suspect, according to French news reports, but later rejected the hypothesis.

Besides the weapons, Besseghir’s trunk reportedly contained a religious tract written in Arabic, a pro-Palestinian document, and an agenda with notes on flights to the United States.

“We believe Besseghir may have accepted to receive a package from overseas,” a French investigator told Le Parisien newspaper, saying the weapons and documents were all stashed in a plastic bag that could have been shipped to France in an airplane luggage compartment.

But, the investigator added, “Besseghir may not have known what there was in the package. He behaves as if this affair has nothing to do with him.”

French authorities Tuesday released Besseghir’s father and brothers, along with a former soldier who first notified police about the weapons stash in Besseghir’s car.

But a fourth man, identified as a cousin of Besseghir’s from Algeria, was also questioned by French anti-terrorist judge Gilbert Thiel Wednesday.

The Paris prosecutor’s office requested Besseghir’s incarceration Tuesday, estimating “a pile of evidence that seemed to converge on a terrorist path,” but also urging prudence in the inquiry.

Also unclear is the role and motive — if any — of the former soldier who first alerted French authorities about the arms stash Saturday. French media have identified him as Marcel L., and said he had recently faced charges with arms trafficking.

According to Wednesday’s Le Parisien, Marcel L. may have been trying to frame Besseghir on the orders of his in-laws.

Besseghir’s is among several holiday arrests in France, amid heightened concern about potential terrorist attacks. Last week, the French Interior Ministry announced it had apparently foiled a plot to attack the Russian Embassy in Paris, and Russian and Israeli interests overseas.

Airport security has also been tightened, and tens of thousands of airport employees have undergone extensive background checks. Besseghir passed the test at Charles de Gaulle, the airport said.

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