Al-Qaida trial opens in Belgium

BELGIUM opened the trial yesterday of 23 suspected al-Qaida collaborators, including a professional footballer who has confessed to knowing Osama bin Laden and plotting to attack a Belgian air force base.

Other accused in Europe’s latest high-profile trial of suspected Islamic militants face charges linking them to the killing of an Afghan commander days before the September 11 attacks on the United States in 2001.

Belgian authorities were taking no chances as the trial started at a tightly guarded Brussels courthouse a day after al-Qaida called for more attacks on the West.

Bulletproof glass shielded key suspects who were each handcuffed to a guard.

One key suspect is Tunisian-born footballer Nizar ben Abdelaziz Trabelsi, who said in a radio interview last year that he knew and admired bin laden, al-Qaida’s Saudi-born leader and the prime suspect behind the September 11 attacks.

“He has known bin Laden in certain circumstances that he will explain to the court,” Abbes Mehdi, one of Trabelsi’s three lawyers, told reporters.

In the interview aired on RTBF radio, Trabelsi, 32, also confessed to planning a bomb attack on the Kleine Brogel air force base, which anti-nuclear activists say houses US nuclear weapons.

Trabelsi was arrested in Brussels with explosives and firearms two days after the September 11 attacks.

Another lawyer, Didier de Quevy, said he was seeking a lighter sentence for Trabelsi because he had confessed to the charges.

The suspects face up to 10 years in prison if found guilty on charges ranging from fraud and possession of firearms to belonging to a criminal organisation and recruiting for a foreign armed force.

Most are suspected members of a little-known Muslim group with ties to al-Qaida, also accused of the bombings which killed more than 70 people in Morocco and Saudi Arabia in the past week.

Two suspects, Algerian-born Amor ben Mohamed Sliti and Tarek ben Habib Maaroufi of Tunisia, are charged with trafficking in false passports and other crimes connected with the murder of Ahmad Shah Masood.

Masood was an Afghan commander who fought the ousted Taliban regime.

Two stolen Belgian passports were found on the bodies of Masood’s killers.

The trial, expected to last one month, coincides with a high security alert in the United States and Europe over fears of more al-Qaida attacks. On Wednesday, bin Laden’s top lieutenant urged Muslims to strike at western targets.

Many European countries began cracking down on Muslim militant groups after the September 11 plane hijacking terror attacks on New York and Washington, with the Netherlands and Germany bringing suspects to trial.

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