- The Washington Times - Friday, January 24, 2003

ROME, Jan. 24 (UPI) — Italian police Friday were questioning five Moroccan men they believe may have been planning terror attacks, prompting U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft — in Rome for talks — to call Italy one of Washington's strongest allies in the war against terrorism.

The men were arrested during a routine sweep for illegal immigrants on Wednesday in an abandoned farmhouse near Venice.

Reports Friday said police allegedly found more than two pounds of high-power C4 plastic explosives, and documents — including maps marking the location of NATO bases, churches, and embassies in Italy and street maps detailing parts of London.

C4 is the same kind of military explosive found in the footwear of Richard Reid, the "shoe bomber" apprehended on a Miami-bound flight out of Paris at the end of 2001. It was also used in last October's bombings of two nightclubs in the Indonesian tourist resort of Bali, which killed nearly 200 people.

The names of the five suspects were not officially released, but Italian television news reported that among them was 32-year-old Reduane Bnoughazi, a leading figure in the Muslim community in Rovigo, where the men were arrested.

One television network reported that another man, Amro Lahrajh, was part of the group. Lahrajh was arrested last year on charges of possessing an unlicensed firearm, but he was later released.

"We can confirm that the men were arrested, that they are being questioned and that they appeared to have in their possession materials that would appear to be of a suspicious nature," a spokesman for the special paramilitary Caribinieri police in the region of Veneto told United Press International on Friday. "Nothing else is confirmed at this point."

Sofia Tiengo, a Verona lawyer representing two of the arrested men, said the suspects denied any knowledge of the explosives and said they had been set up.

"The only crime the men are guilty of is squatting on land that did not belong to them and being in the country without the proper papers," Tiengo said on local television.

Ashcroft, who was in Italy on Thursday to discuss bilateral cooperation efforts with his counterpart Roberto Castelli, the Italian minister of justice, took news of the most recent arrests as an opportunity to praise Italian efforts to limit the spread of terror networks within the country's borders.

"The arrests are concrete evidence that Italy takes terrorism seriously and fights it aggressively," Ashcroft said at an impromptu press conference held after the meetings with Castelli concluded. "I would like to thank Italy for its outstanding assistance in fighting terrorism."

With these five arrests, the total number of terror suspects arrested in Italy since the suicide hijacking attacks on New York and Washington more than 16 months ago totals at least 116. Only nine have been sentenced to jail time. Italian authorities have not released information about the fate of the remaining suspects, though it is known that some have been released and deported. It is also believed that several others have been transferred to the U.S. military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Italian activists have protested in the streets of Rome, Milan and Bologna, in the pages of newspapers and on talk show programs about the possibility that some of the detainees may have been sent to the United States, where — if designated as "enemy combatants — they face indefinite detention without charge or trial, and could be condemned to death by a military tribunal. Capital punishment is not allowed under Italian law.

U.S. and Italian officials have so far declined to confirm or deny that any of the suspects arrested in Italy since Sept. 11, 2001, had been transferred to U.S. soil.

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