Three Moroccans accused of murder in Spain bombings

Investigators believe one is top suspect in attacks March 11 on four trains

March 20, 2004|By Sebastian Rotella | Sebastian Rotella,LOS ANGELES TIMES

MADRID, Spain - An investigative magistrate accused three Moroccans yesterday, including a top suspect in train bombings here last week, of multiple counts of murder, attempted murder and terrorist activity in the attacks that killed 202 people and wounded 1,500.

After seven hours of closed testimony, Judge Juan del Olmo ordered Jamal Zougam; his half-brother, Mohamed Chaoui; and their business partner, Mohammed Bekkali, held on suspicion of the bombing-related charges as well as auto theft, authorities said.

Investigators believe Zougam, 30, played a central role in a plot that teamed longtime extremists based in Spain with Moroccan operatives who arrived more recently. The March 11 bombings had a resounding impact worldwide, contributing to the electoral defeat of Spain's ruling party, weakening the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq and raising fears of new militant strikes.

Investigators say they have found ties dating back more than three years between Zougam and important al-Qaida operatives and ideologues. But police never had enough evidence to arrest him, they say, even after his name surfaced in last year's suicide bombings against Spanish and other Western targets in Casablanca, Morocco.

During an early-morning interrogation yesterday, Zougam denied any role in the Madrid bombings, court officials said. He kept his gaze fixed on the floor and broke down in tears, the officials said.

All three Moroccans insisted that they were asleep at home at the time of the train explosions, which took place about 7:45 a.m., according to court officials. Although Chaoui supported his half-brother's alibi, saying they were asleep in the same room, he also testified that they were not close because Zougam was "very religious," court officials said.

A witness has claimed Zougam was aboard one of the trains, but police are unsure about that account. The strongest evidence against Zougam centers on telephone equipment he allegedly supplied that was used as remote detonators for the bombs, according to a senior law enforcement official.

The three Moroccans face charges on 190 counts of murder, a number that differs from the total death toll because some bodies remain unidentified.

The judge also jailed two Indian immigrants, Suresh Kamar and Vinay Khohy, on suspicions of militant collaboration and fraud for their connections to fraudulent telephone cards used in the detonators.

The five were jailed pending prosecution as police interrogated five new suspects who were arrested this week, including a Moroccan associate of Zougam named Mohammed Chedadi. Like Zougam, Chedadi is a shopkeeper born in Tangiers, Morocco, and was known to investigators.

Police arrested his brother, Said Chedadi, in late 2001 in a crackdown on an al-Qaida cell here suspected of involvement in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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