November 20, 2005

Morocco arrests 17 suspected al Qeada activists

RABAT (Reuters) - Security forces in Morocco have arrested
17 radical Islamists on suspicion of belonging to a "terrorist
structure" linked to al Qaeda, the state news agency MAP said
on Sunday, quoting a police source.

Morocco has been on high alert since 2003 when suicide
bombings killed 45 people in Casablanca, the country's
financial capital.

"The 17 members involved in this project have been arrested
and will face prosecution," the news agency said.

The police source said two Belgians of Moroccan origin,
Khalid Azig and Mohamed R'ha, entered Morocco earlier this year
to recruit members for the unnamed "terrorist structure" among
Moroccans "permeated with extremist ideas."

Azig, who studied theology in Syria, arrived in Morocco in
June and was followed three months later by R'ha, who had also
been in Syria and who has links with North African radical
Islamists in Europe, MAP quoted the police source as saying.

MAP said that during their mission to Morocco, Azig and
R'ha had recruited a number of people to their group.

The agency said two Moroccans who had been held by the
United States at Guantanamo Bay, Brahim Benchekroun and Mohamed
Mazouz, were among the recruits.

Benchekroun and Mazouz, who had been out of jail pending
trial in Morocco, were arrested early this month, government
officials have said.

The police source told MAP the group to which the 17
arrested Islamists belonged "has connections with small groups
based on the border with Iraq and has close links with
operatives of the al Qaeda organization."

Government officials were not immediately available to give
further details.

Local newspapers reported last week that authorities had
stepped up security measures in Casablanca and other tourist
areas in Morocco and ordered hotel owners to do the same.

The newspapers said authorities feared Morocco could be al
Qaeda's next target after Jordan, where 57 people died in
triple suicide bombings last week.

Government officials subsequently played down the newspaper
reports, saying the measures were "normal police activity."