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Morocco Sentences 3 in Terrorism Plot

February 22, 2003

CASABLANCA, Morocco (AP) _ Three Saudi Arabians were sentenced to 10 years in prison Friday by a Moroccan court for leading an al-Qaida plot to attack U.S. and British warships.

The Saudis, said by Moroccan authorities to have been firmly enmeshed in al-Qaida, were arrested May 12 in what prosecutors contend was a plot to sail a dinghy loaded with explosives from Morocco into the Strait of Gibraltar to attack U.S. and British warships.

The plan was similar to one carried out in October 2000, when two suicide bombers in a small boat rammed the USS Cole destroyer in a port in Yemen, killing 17 sailors.

Prosecutor Saoud Grain had sought the death penalty _ execution by firing squad _ ``because of the gravity of the crimes attributed to the accused and to put an end to terrorism, this blight that all societies are fighting,″ he said earlier this week.

The penalty is allowed under Moroccan law but rarely carried out. The North African nation has executed just two people since 1982.

Zouhair Hilal Tabiti, 26, Hilal Jaber El-Assiri, 31, and Abdellah Msafer El Ghamidi, 22, are also accused of having planned to blow up a cafe in Marrakech, a major tourist destination, and attack tourist buses in Morocco.

The defense contends that authorities tortured the defendants to extract information.

``The accusations were invented by the Moroccan and Israel secret services,″ Tabiti told the court.

All three Saudis admitted under interrogation that they were trained in the use of weapons and explosives at al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Moroccan police are believed to have thwarted the plot with the help of information provided by suspected al-Qaida operatives held at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The three men were convicted on charges of attempted murder, attempted sabotage with the use of explosives and belonging to a criminal organization.

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