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Tuesday, 5 February, 2002, 17:22 GMT
Terror suspects on trial in Italy
Milan city centre
Milan prosecutors say all are al-Qaeda members
Italy has put four Tunisians on trial over their alleged links with Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaeda terrorist organisation, including the suspected head of the network's regional operations.

Milan state prosecutor Stefano Dambruoso has urged a six-year prison term for Essid Sami Ben Khemais, alleged to be the most senior of the group, and four-and-a-half years for each of the other defendants.

They are accused of belonging to a terrorist group which conspired to traffic in false documents, weapons, explosives and chemical weapons.

All four deny the charges levelled against them. They had requested and were granted a "fast-track" trial, which allows for reduced sentences if they are convicted.

Wednesday ruling

The men were arrested between April and October last year after police tapped phone conversations, and are not accused of any direct involvement with the terrorist attacks on 11 September.

A total of 12 men linked to an alleged cell in Milan were arrested during this period both in Italy and in Germany following a joint security effort.
Ben Khemais
Ben Khemais: "Top terrorists do not steal fuel"
Mr Ben Khemais, who is suspected of planning a terrorist attack against France and against the US embassy in Rome, told the court he was "a practising Muslim, not a terrorist".

He told the court he had first been arrested by Italian police while siphoning fuel from a lorry. "How could the leader of a terrorist cell stoop so low?" he said.

He admitted dealing in fake documents, but said he did so merely to survive.

The defendant was last month sentenced in absentia to 20 years in jail by a Tunisian military tribunal, in a trial of 34 suspected terrorists.

A verdict on all four is expected on Wednesday.

See also:

04 Feb 02 | Europe
France arrests suspect militants
11 Dec 01 | Europe
Looking for European al-Qaeda
21 Sep 01 | Europe
Islamic 'plotters' held in France
18 Sep 01 | Americas
France backs US on terrorism
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