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German police arrest 3 suspected jihadists – Tunisian linked to museum attack

Policemen walk past their cars standing on the grounds of the Bilal mosque in the Griesheim district of Frankfurt am Main, western Germany, on Feb 1.

BERLIN, Feb 1, (AFP): German police said they arrested three people in Berlin on Tuesday suspected of trying to reach foreign “war zones” in order to train to carry out an attack. The suspects may be linked to the Islamic State group and had “planned to travel to war zones,” likely Syria or Iraq, a Berlin police spokesman told AFP. Police also carried out searches, but there has been “no indication of concrete plans to carry out an attack in Germany”, according to the Bild daily’s website. The suspects, whose gender was not immediately given, were aged 21, 31 and 45, the spokesman said. He added that investigators suspect they were trying to reach a camp to train to launch an attack. At least two of the people arrested lived in Berlin, Bild reported. Those arrested frequented the same mosque attended by a Tunisian man suspected of ploughing a hijacked lorry into a Berlin Christmas market, killing 12. The Dec 19 attack was claimed by IS. The mosque, which is being investigated by authorities, was also searched.

Meanwhile, a Tunisian man arrested in Germany on Wednesday on suspicion of recruiting for the Islamic State group is also accused of involvement in the deadly 2015 attack on the Bardo Museum in Tunis, German prosecutors said.

The 36-year-old is wanted by Tunisian authorities on suspicion of “participating in planning and carrying out” the attack, which killed more than 20 foreigners, the prosecutor’s office in the western state of Hesse said in a statement. They also suspect him of involvement in a bloody jihadist assault on the border town of Ben Guerdane last March, it added. Tunisia issued a warrant for his arrest in June 2016 but he escaped extradition from Germany late last year because Tunisian authorities failed to provide the required documentation for his deportation, according to the prosecutors. The suspect was taken into custody in the early morning as police carried out sweeping antiterror raids in Frankfurt and nearby towns.

There was no immediate response from Tunis to the arrest. “At the moment we don’t know the identity of this person, there are several suspects in the Bardo and Ben Guerdane cases currently on the run,” Tunisian prosecution spokesman Sofiene Sliti told AFP. The case is likely to reignite debate about Tunisia’s cooperation in taking back nationals due for deportation. The issue has already caused tensions between the German government and Tunis after it emerged that the Tunisian national who ploughed a truck into a Berlin Christmas market in December, killing 12 people, was a failed asylum-seeker.

Anis Amri should have been deported months earlier but Tunisia did not provide the necessary paperwork until after the attack. More than 1,000 officers were involved in Wednesday’s dawn searches in the Frankfurt area, which targeted dozens of homes and offices as well as two mosques. Alexander Badle, a spokesman for the Frankfurt prosecutor’s office, said the Tunisian national did not put up any resistance when he was taken into custody. The suspect is accused of recruiting for the IS jihadist group and of trying to build a network of IS supporters with the goal of staging an attack in Germany. Prosecutors are also investigating 15 other people aged 16 to 46 over the alleged plot. Badle stressed the plans were still “at a very early stage”.

“There was no concrete danger of an attack,” he told reporters in the western city of Wiesbaden. The suspect arrived in Germany as an asylum-seeker in August 2015, the prosecutors’ statement said. He had already lived in the country for a decade some years earlier. He was arrested the following August on an outstanding 2008 conviction for causing bodily harm. After serving a 43-day sentence, he was kept in detention awaiting deportation to Tunisia before the authorities were forced to release him again. “As the Tunisian authorities, despite repeated reminders from the German authorities, failed to supply the necessary deportation documents within the 40-day period, the suspect was released on November 4, 2016,” the statement said. He was kept under surveillance from the day of his release until his arrest on Wednesday, it added. Germany has been on high alert since the December 19 Christmas market assault, wich was claimed by the Islamic State group. The attack fuelled criticism of Germany’s security services and of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s liberal asylum policy, with opponents saying not enough was done to stop Amri.

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