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Trial Opens for al-Qaida Link Suspects

May 22, 2003

BRUSSELS, Belgium _ Twenty-three suspects charged with links to al-Qaida went on trial Thursday in Belgium, and two of the defendants lunged at each other after giving conflicting testimony about a phony passport ring.

The two, Mohamed Fethi and Abdelhouaid Aberkan, are among 12 suspects accused of being part of the al-Qaida-linked passport ring. They jumped at each other and had to be separated by security guards.

They were charged with assault and battery and threatening behavior, said Lieve Pellens, a spokeswoman for the federal prosecution office.

There are two sets of defendants on trial, those charged in the passport ring, and 11 others accused of planning an attack on a U.S. air base at Kleine Brogel in northwestern Belgium that is believed to house tactical nuclear warheads. About 100 U.S. Air Force personnel work there.

One key defendant, Tarek Maaroufi, is charged in both cases.

Nizar Trabelsi, a leading defendant in the air base case, admitted in a radio interview from prison last year that he was involved in the plot to bomb the base in early 2002.

Trabelsi is also suspected in a plot to blow up the U.S. Embassy in Paris at about the same time, which he denies. Charges in the Belgian case include attempting to destroy property by explosion, possession of illegal arms, and membership in a private militia.

Trabelsi will plead guilty to several charges, his lawyer Didier de Quevy said Thursday. De Quevy said Trabelsi met Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and ``came back to Belgium with one goal in mind: Kleine Brogel.″

``He now thinks it was a bad idea,″ de Quevy said.

Maaroufi denied accusations he was the leader of the phony passport ring, which has been linked to the slaying of anti-Taliban leader Ahmed Shah Massood on Sept. 9, 2001, in Afghanistan. Two suicide bombers posing as journalists killed Massood and were allegedly traveling on false Belgian passports.

Maaroufi is also accused of trying to recruit for a foreign military force, prosecutors said. Investigators believe the attackers who killed Massood were sent by bin Laden.

The trial is the first terror-related prosecution in Belgium since the Sept. 11 attacks prompted a spate of arrests across Europe. The trial is expected to last until June 30.

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