Spain arrested yesterday 16 suspected extremists linked to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network who were preparing to launch chemical attacks, Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar said. Police in predawn raids searched 12 homes in the Catalonia region surrounding Barcelona, also discovering explosives, bomb components and radio transmission equipment used to communicate with Islamic extremists in Algeria and Chechnya, Spain's interior minister said. They (police) have broken up a major terrorist network ... linked in this case to the Algerian Salafist group, a splinter of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which has clear connections with the criminal organisation of bin Laden, Aznar told a news conference in La Coruña yesterday. The network had connections with terrorists recently arrested in France and the United Kingdom, and they were preparing attacks with explosives and chemical materials, he said. He did not say where the attacks were to have been. Court sources however said the number arrested was 19 and that as many of eight of those would be set free shortly for lack of evidence. Interior Minister Angel Acebes said those arrested were mostly Algerian and linked to suspects recently arrested in France and Britain. The searches yesterday turned up containers of suspicious resins, fuels and other chemicals that were being analysed, Acebes said, as well as electronic components, detonators and remote controls that would be used to make bombs. Court sources said the suspects may be linked to a suspected al Qaeda explosives expert who was arrested in Paris last year with plans to blow up important French buildings. The swoop by some 180 Spanish police, on a request from French authorities, was the first major operation against suspected Islamic militants in Spain this year. Acebes said Spain has now arrested 35 suspects believed to have ties to al Qaeda since the September 11, 2001, airliner attacks on New York and Washington. Among them were eight men arrested in November 2001 suspected of having played a role in the attacks. In addition, police say lead hijacker Mohamed Atta travelled extensively in Spain in the summer before the commercial jets slammed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Police say Atta held at least one meeting with conspirators in Salou, also in Catalonia in the northeast of Spain. Friday's operation, authorised by a High Court judge, began at least a year and half ago when Spain's High Court authorised telephone wiretaps, court sources said. The first of the detainees were transferred to Madrid for interrogation with the rest to follow, the sources said. They were being held on suspicion of belonging to an armed group. Before Friday, the most recent Spanish arrest was made on December 26, when an Algerian man was detained in the northern region of La Rioja on suspicion of links to GIA and of training at bin Laden's camps in Afghanistan.
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