Britain widens anti-terror probe, arrests 13 in northern England

British police move to root out alleged al-Qaida terror cells

January 18, 2002|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - Two Algerians were charged yesterday as suspected members of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network, and 11 others were arrested as Great Britain's anti-terror probe shifted to northern England.

Baghdad Meziane, 37, and Brahim Benmerzouga, 30, appeared in a local magistrates court in Leicester yesterday and were ordered held until Jan. 24.

Meziane was charged with "directing" al-Qaida and "inciting an act of terrorism overseas," Leicestershire police said.

Benmerzouga was charged with possession of 19 racist videotapes "with a view to distribution" and possession of "an article for the purposes of terrorism," which was reported to be a solar-powered battery.

The men were charged with being members of al-Qaida, an organization banned under British anti-terrorism legislation enacted after the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States. They also face four charges "relating to the financing of terrorism," according to Leicestershire police.

It was believed that the men were detained on immigration charges in September; news reports said the men were linked to an unsuccessful plot to attack the U.S. Embassy in Paris.

In late September, Leicester police arrested three men, handing two over to immigration authorities and extraditing the third, Kamel Daoudi, 23, to France. Daoudi reportedly was linked to Djamel Beghal, who told French investigators that he recruited extremists at mosques in Britain.

Neighbors of Meziane, one of the men charged yesterday, said he had been in prison since September.

"His wife is very ill and very upset by what is happening. She is pregnant and her baby is sick, and now her husband is in prison," a neighbor told Britain's Press Association.

Leicester police said yesterday that eight other men were arrested under the anti-terrorism act and that three others were held on immigration charges.

While stressing that there "is no evidence to suggest any terrorist threat" in Leicestershire, a police spokesman said people "may see additional police activity and experience some disruption to their normal lifestyle over the next couple of days."

The police activity appeared to be a sign that Britain is anxious to root out al-Qaida cells allegedly operating in the country. A handful of mosques with fiery anti-Western leaders dot the country.

The United States is seeking extradition from Britain of Lotfi Raissi, the Algerian pilot suspected of being the instructor of some of those who participated in the Sept. 11 attacks.

Three Britons are being held at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Guardian reported yesterday that "at least 20 Britons suspected of fighting with Taliban or al-Qaida forces are being held in Afghanistan and Pakistan."

"It has been clear for some time that Britain has been regarded as a very convenient safe haven and base for international support for terrorism," Paul Wilkinson, an anti-terror expert from St. Andrews University, told the British Broadcasting Corp.

Wilkinson said the British are acting "in the context of a much wider effort by police in Europe," where key al-Qaida members reputedly operated before the terror attacks in New York, Washington and rural Pennsylvania.

Wilkinson added, "It is not surprising in our open societies [that] we have a very large number of these people, hundreds perhaps in Britain and other countries in Western Europe, who are trained and ready to carry out tasks."

Meanwhile, Britain continued to monitor the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay amid mounting international criticism of the detention facilities. British Prime Minister Tony Blair was peppered with queries on the subject Wednesday during his weekly question time in Parliament.

"Firstly, whatever they are alleged to have done, they ought to be treated properly, full stop," British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told reporters. "Secondly, that is how we can retain the moral ascendancy here."

The Church of England called on the United States to treat the prisoners "with humanity and dignity."

"Every action must be tested against principles of justice," said a joint statement issued by the church's bishops. "Ends do not justify means. Those who proclaim that their cause is just must act justly."

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