Eiffel Tower terror gang jailed

TWENTY-FIVE would-be terrorists were jailed by a Paris court yesterday for preparing to mount a string of attacks on the Eiffel Tower and other high-profile targets in France as part of a campaign to support Chechen rebels.

The five main defendants were given prison terms of eight to ten years for organising the attacks in support of Islamic fighters in the war-ravaged Russian republic of Chechnya. The 20 others were jailed for six months or more.

Two of the defendants were acquitted of all charges, but 24 out of the remaining 25 accused of "jihadi" links with Chechen militants were found guilty on the broad charge of criminal association in relation with a terrorist enterprise - a charge used in France to bring the maximum number of terrorist suspects to justice. The remaining defendant was convicted of using false papers.

Prosecutors told the court that the terror network had plotted between 2001 and 2002 to attack targets in the French capital, which are believed to include the Eiffel Tower and the sprawling Les Halles underground shopping complex. The prosecution said that the links to Islamic fighters in Chechnya underscored the "globalisation of the jihad movement".

The court heard that when the group was raided in December 2002, it had "been close to action".

Prosecutors told the court they believed the group had been planning a chemical attack, but were unable to prove this despite the fact police had found gas canisters, fuses and a chemical protection suit, when they stormed two houses in the Paris suburbs of La Courneuve and Romainville where the network was based.

In a second wave of arrests in January 2004 in the Lyons suburb of Vernissuex in south-east France, chemical products including the poison ricin were found.

The court heard that some of the plotters were allegedly international Islamic militants with links to al-Qaeda, while others were former members of the Armed Islamic Group who had fled their base in Algeria, travelled through Europe and regrouped in France. The remaining defendants had been recruited locally in France's deprived city suburbs.

Merouane Benhamed, 33, described as the group's chief and Menad Benchellali, 32, the group's alleged chemicals expert, were both given the maximum ten-year jail sentence.

Said Arif and Nourredine Merabet, said to be the group's financier, were both sentenced to nine years. However, Menad's father, Chellali Benchellali, an imam from the south-eastern city of Lyon, was only given an 18-month suspended prison term, far lower than the prosecution's demand for six years behind bars.

The imam was known to have occasionally used his makeshift mosque on the ground foor of a high-rise to collect funds for Islamic fighters in Chechnya.

The family was at the centre of the case, with Menad Benchalli's mother Hafsa and brother Hafed also convicted for roles in the plot to carry out the Paris attack. Hafed was given a four-year prison term and Hafsa received a two-year suspended sentence.

Several of the defendants claimed they had been mistreated during questioning and accused investigators of offering inducements to confess.

Benhamed's lawyer, Isabelle Coutant, described the verdicts as "political" and claimed they "profit the US, Algeria and Russia". She said: "They have been convicted because they are Muslims."

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