Antonio Calanni  /  AP
Milan prosecutor Armando Spataro, left, flanked by his colleague Nicola Piacente tell reporters Tuesday that police exercised arrest warrants against terrorism suspects across Europe.
updated 11/6/2007 11:46:50 AM ET 2007-11-06T16:46:50

A Europe-wide sweep disrupted an Islamic cell that was recruiting potential suicide bombers for attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan, Italian police said Tuesday, announcing the arrests of 20 terror suspects.

Police said the suspects, mostly Tunisians, were arrested across Europe as part of the sweep against a cell based in the northern Italian region of Lombardy.

Executing the arrest warrants, police said they found al-Qaida manuals for making explosives, detonation devices and poisons, and instructions on guerrilla techniques.

"The investigation has revealed recruitment, training and passage to aspiring terrorists to Iraq and Afghanistan," lead investigator Gen. Giampoaolo Ganzer, of Italy's paramilitary Carabinieri police, told a news conference.

The suspects were wanted on charges ranging from association with the aim of committing international terrorism to falsifying documents to aid illegal immigrants.

"Once more, the central role of Milan and Lombardy in the panorama of Islamic militants has been confirmed," the Carabinieri said in a statement.

The group's members had been indoctrinated in militancy in mosques since at least 1998, according to police transcripts, and appeared to take serious precautions.

In one intercepted call, a suspected cell member said that "things are being done with extreme calm, haste does not bring the desired results."

Islamic state from Morocco to China
Eleven were arrested in the northern Italian cities of Milan, Reggio Emilia, Imperia and Bergamo. Nine others were arrested on warrants issued in France, Britain and Portugal, Italian news agencies reported.

Authorities in Britain, France and Portugal confirmed arrests.

The Lombardy cell had ties with a group in neighboring Emilia Romagna whose aim is to establish an Islamic state extending from Morocco to China, Italian investigators said. Intercepted phone calls made clear the aim of sending jihadist fighters to Iraq via Syria, including specific instructions on shaving off beards before departure to give the impression of making a "peaceful trip."

Ganzer said that while the main aim of the group were attacks aimed at western targets in Iraq and Afghanistan, they also had ties to groups that planned attacks in Italy. Police said the Milan-based cell helped a Tunisian involved in planning a failed attack in Bologna flee to France in 2006. The attack was meant to be carried out around Italy's national elections in April 2006, police said.

Giuliano Amato, Italy's interior minister, said the suspects are mostly Tunisian. He praised the sting as an example of strong cooperation among European countries.

In Britain, authorities said two suspects were arrested in London and Manchester and face extradition to Italy. The men, identified as Ali Chehidi, 34, and Mohamed Khermiri, 53, were accused of forging documents to help volunteers enter Italy illegally.

Portuguese police said they arrested a North African in the northern Portuguese city of Porto on suspicion of international terrorism, illegal immigration and smuggling. He had been in Portugal for three years and had a Portuguese residence permit allowing travel within Europe's Schengen area.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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