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Fighting terror

French believe poison is tied to al-Qaida plots

Compiled from Times wires
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 22, 2003

PARIS -- Police suspect traces of the poison ricin discovered in a train station locker are connected to recent alleged plots by al-Qaida to produce the deadly substance in London and to carry out chemical attacks in Paris, authorities said Friday.

The discovery this week of the toxin, which is derived from the castor bean plant and can be used as a biological weapon, was unprecedented in France. It caused concern in a capital that, as a result of the war in Iraq, has gone on heightened alert for terrorist attacks.

Antiterrorist police have focused on an alleged Algerian-dominated network whose operatives are believed to have received specialized training with biological and chemical weapons at al-Qaida camps in the Russian republic of Chechnya. One of the suspected leaders is Abu Musab Zarqawi, who has operated in Iraq with the protection of the Iraqi regime, U.S. officials said.

In January, British police arrested suspected members of the so-called "Chechen network" during a raid on a makeshift ricin lab in London. That group was linked to cells previously dismantled in the Paris suburbs of Romainville and La Courneuve.

The arrests were part of a crackdown in Britain, France and Spain that might well have averted cyanide gas attacks on the Russian Embassy in Paris and on the London subway, French officials say.

France's interior minister said Friday the ricin case probably involves the same network.

"One can think that there are ties, without being certain, to the al-Qaida movement and the teams that were arrested in Romainville and La Courneuve," Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy said. "But no information at our disposal leads us to affirm that France was targeted."

Along with two flasks that tested positive for ricin traces, police found three more flasks containing ethanol and acetone in the luggage locker at the Gare de Lyon, the interior minister said. The mix of chemicals could indicate a plan to fabricate an explosive, authorities said.

Police are investigating possible connections to the London case -- in particular whether the the ricin found in Paris came from the clandestine lab discovered by British investigators, law enforcement officials said. The authorities also are trying to determine if a ricin lab has been operating in France, a French law enforcement official told the Los Angeles Times.

Relatively few al-Qaida operatives in Europe know how to produce and use ricin, the official said.

Ricin's most effective use would be in assassinations rather than mass-casualty attacks. Even a few deaths could cause disproportionate panic because the fearsome poison has no antidote and can kill within hours if ingested or injected.

Attacks increase as Valiant Strike continues

BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan -- The first night since the start of war in Iraq saw the highest number of attacks on U.S. and allied forces here in months, with assailants aiming 13 rockets and small arms fire at three posts in former Taliban strongholds in southern and eastern Afghanistan, a U.S. Army spokesman said Friday.

The surge in attacks, which injured no one, coincided with the start of a major sweep for al-Qaida sympathizers in southern Afghanistan's Kandahar Province.

By Friday, Operation Valiant Strike had yielded no sightings of enemy forces by some 600 troops of the 82nd Airborne Division who were scouring the Sami Ghar mountains and nearby villages, said Col. Roger King, chief spokesman for U.S. military forces in Afghanistan.

Moussaoui wants 3 more terror suspects to testify

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- Zacarias Moussaoui has asked a federal judge to allow three more terror suspects in custody to testify at his trial on charges of conspiring to aid the Sept. 11 hijackers.

According to court records unsealed Friday, Moussaoui asked U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema to order the government to produce Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks; Mustafa al-Hisawi, a suspected financier of the attacks; and Abu Zubaydah, a suspected coordinator of al-Qaida terrorist activities.

Mohammed and al-Hisawi were captured March 1 in Pakistan.

Zubaydah had been captured there a year earlier.

The motions, if granted by Brinkema, would increase the pressure on the government to move the Moussaoui case to a military tribunal. Mohammed, al-Hisawi and Zubaydah are being questioned at undisclosed locations, and the government does not want them to testify at a public trial.

Tests planned for system to tell doctors of alerts

Federal health officials said Friday they will soon start testing a system that would allow instant messaging of bioterror alerts to nearly half the nation's doctors via handheld computers.

The three-month pilot project is designed to help figure out the best way for the government to communicate with frontline health providers in the event of a bioterrorism attack.

During the 2001 anthrax attacks, the Department of Health and Human Services primarily used teleconferences and the Internet to communicate with physicians and other providers -- a system many doctors complained was too slow and cumbersome.

The project will use a private handheld network, called ePocrates, to send an urgent "Doc Alert" message to more than 700,000 clients, including more than 250,000 doctors.

Also . . .

9 ARRESTED IN SWEEP: Federal agents arrested nine people at businesses from New York to California who they allege were smuggling money abroad or selling fake passports in schemes that could aid terrorists.

Authorities said that none of those arrested over the three-day operation are being charged with being terrorists but that the schemes they used and the countries they were involved with have been exploited by terrorist organizations.

9/11 COMMISSION INVITES SPEAKERS: Witnesses, lawmakers and relatives of victims are among those invited to speak at the first public hearing of the independent commission on the Sept. 11 attacks.

The hearing will mark the first public action of the 10-member National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.

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