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Thursday, 21 February, 2002, 22:31 GMT
'Cyanide plotters' face terror charges
Italian police patrol central Rome
Italy has mounted a large anti-terrorism campaign
Four Moroccans suspected of planning a chemical attack on Rome will face charges of subversive association Italian officials have said.

The four arrested men are suspected of plotting to poison the water supplies in the area around the US embassy.

Officials initially said the men were in possession of a powdered cyanide-based substance sufficient to poison the water supply of an entire neighbourhood.

If this substance had been put in the water network it appears that it would not have been capable of causing any damage whatsoever

Italy's government official
But tests later showed that the substance was a form of potassium ferrocyanide that did not have enough cyanide to cause major damage.

"If this substance had been put in the water network it appears that it would not have been capable of causing any damage whatsoever," said Emilio del Mese, a government official.

US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher praised the Italian authorities for "their ongoing commitment to countering the terrorist threat" but denied that embassy staff had been at risk.

The four men, aged between 30 and 40, were detained on Tuesday in a raid on a flat in the Tor Bella Monaca area in the south of the Italian capital.

Police also found maps marking the capital's water supply network, as well as a hoard of false documentation and Islamic extremist propaganda.

Intelligence operation

Magistrates are reported to be outraged that news of the arrests has been leaked to the press.

They say it will jeopardise efforts to reveal who the men were working with.

Italian intelligence services are reported to have mounted a massive intelligence operation to find out how the al-Qaeda network functions.

Since 11 September, 20 people have been arrested in Italy on suspicion of having links to extremist groups.

Surveillance of the four men arrested on Tuesday has allegedly revealed links to four Tunisians on trial in Milan over purported ties with the al-Qaeda network.

A verdict in that case is expected on Friday.

The BBC's Stephen Sackur
"It is possible that they were targeting the US embassy"
The BBC's Bridget Kendall
"There are now fears that a full-blown cyanide attack was planned"
The BBC's Gavin Hewitt
"They had diagrams of the city's water supply"
The BBC's Frances Kennedy
"The group may have been planning a terrorist attack"
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