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Swiss authorities detain suspected Islamic militants

Saturday, March 5, 2005

BERN, Switzerland -- Swiss authorities said Friday they have detained five Islamic extremists suspected of using the Internet to show the killing of hostages -- which reportedly included the beheading of an American -- and to give bomb-making instructions.

It was unclear if any of the slayings took place in Iraq, where they have been blamed on the group led by Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Video recordings of those killings have been posted on various Islamic Web sites.

"The sites -- which were actively exploited by at least one of the arrested persons -- included numerous videos showing the putting to death of hostages and the mutilation of human beings," said a statement by the Federal Prosecutor's Office.

Peter Lehmann, spokesman for the office, declined to go into detail about the slayings, telling The Associated Press the locations of the killings had yet to be determined.

All the suspects were "of the Islamic faith, with extremist leanings," the office said. It did not identify any of them, but said they came from Tunisia and Belgium and were legal residents of Switzerland.

They are under investigation for incitement to crime and for supporting a terrorist organization, it said.

The office said the forum of the now-closed Web site published letters claiming responsibility for a suicide bomb attack in Pakistan in July 2004.

"The forum of one of the sites was often used by the Islamist movement as a communication and propaganda tool," the statement said, adding that the investigation covered Arab-language sites.

The forum also contained threats against European governments and information relating to two French reporters, Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot, who were held by Islamic militants in Iraq for four months before being released in December. The prosecutor's office did not elaborate.

According to Swiss media reports after the site was shut down, its postings included a video showing the beheading of American Paul M. Johnson Jr., who was kidnapped and killed in Saudi Arabia in June, as well as a threat to kill Italian aid workers Simona Pari and Simona Torretta, who were abducted in Baghdad on Sept. 7 and freed Sept. 28.

Other postings included a sermon by an Iraqi Islamic cleric urging Muslims to behead Jews and fight a holy war against unbelievers; pictures of terror mastermind Osama bin Laden fighting in Afghanistan; and graphic images of a man being beaten to death during Christian-Muslim violence in Indonesia.

The five suspects were detained Feb. 22 in anti-terrorism raids in the capital, Bern, and nearby Fribourg, the prosecutor's office said. Police used force during the operation in Fribourg, the office said without elaborating.

Three of the suspects are still in custody. The other two have been released but remain under investigation, the office said. Police also seized computers, software, video recordings and images.

"The police action was preceded by investigations which lasted several months," the statement explained. "They were able to identify several people who spread fundamentalist Islamist ideas on the Internet."

The Web site -- launched June 21, 2004 -- was closed by its Swiss Internet service provider in September because of its content.

"Another site was then opened" outside Switzerland, the prosecutor's office said, but did not identify the site.

Swiss authorities have sought international judicial assistance to have the new site shut down, the office said, without identifying the country involved.

Swiss media previously have identified the founder of the Web site as Moez Garsallaoui, a Tunisian who was based in Lausanne. A woman who answered the telephone at Garsallaoui's listed number in the Swiss city said he did not live there.

In September, Garsallaoui was quoted as telling the Swiss weekly SonntagsZeitung that his site was dedicated to "political discussion."

"If terrorists want to use this site to publish things, I can't do anything about it," he was quoted as saying. "I don't have any control over that."


EDITOR'S NOTE -- Associated Press writers Jonathan Fowler and Alexander G. Higgins in Geneva contributed to this report.


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