- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 8, 2004

ROME — Italian and Belgian police, in coordinated sweeps, arrested at least 17 suspected Islamist extremists, including an Egyptian who was thought to have played a key role in the March 11 bombings in Madrid, authorities said yesterday.

Officials at Spain’s National Court said Rabei Osman Ahmed, a 33-year-old Egyptian, was detained in Milan late Monday and said to be planning further attacks.

A senior Spanish law-enforcement official described him as a “key figure” in the Madrid commuter train bombings that killed 191 persons.

Italian Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu said that Osman Ahmed was “probably among the principal authors” of the Madrid bombings and that he “was preparing other attacks.”

Osman Ahmed was arrested on a warrant issued Monday by Judge Juan del Olmo, the magistrate leading the investigation into the bombings, officials at Spain’s National Court said.

The man was identified by people living near a decrepit rural cottage where the bombs used in the attack were assembled, the Spanish court officials said. Fingerprints of several key suspects were found in the cottage.

Another suspect was arrested in Italy, while 15 were apprehended in Belgium. The suspects included Palestinians, Egyptians, Jordanians and Moroccans, officials said. One other person was held for questioning in Italy, authorities said.

The suspects arrested in Belgium apparently were not involved in the Madrid bombings, but the investigations in Italy and Belgium were closely linked, said Daniel Bernard, a Belgian federal prosecutor.

He said Belgian investigators were tipped off by Italian authorities.

The second man arrested in Italy was the landlord of the Egyptian’s apartment in Milan and also used to live there. Italian news reports carried by RAI state television and TG5 private television identified him as Yahia Payumi, a 21-year-old Palestinian, and said he was accused of association for international terrorism, a charge introduced in Italy after the September 11 attacks in the United States.

Mr. Bernard said evidence gained from telephone wiretaps and other “advanced techniques” convinced them that those arrested in Belgium were “an active terrorist cell.”

“At the moment, there are no indications that there is a link with al Qaeda, but we can’t fully exclude the possibility,” Mr. Bernard said. “However, today we do not possess sufficient proof to affirm such a link exists.”

Spanish radio station Cadena Ser quoted police as saying Osman Ahmed is an expert in explosives and was in Spain last year, but left the country months before the March 11 attacks.

Police said he had close ties with the man accused of being ringleader of the attacks, a Tunisian named Serhane Ben Abdelmajid Fakhet, according to Cadena Ser.

The Spanish government said Fakhet was among seven suspects who blew themselves up April 3, when police tried to storm their apartment outside Madrid.

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