Madrid bombing ‘masterminds’ deny charges

Two more alleged masterminds behind the deadly 2004 Madrid train bombings denied on Friday any involvement in the attacks and followed an accused co-plotter in refusing to address the court directly.

On the second day of the trial of 29 people charged over the blasts that killed 191 people in one of Europe’s worst terror strikes, Moroccans Youssef Belhadj and Hassan el-Haski both insisted on their innocence.

”I am a normal Muslim. I condemn the attacks and all kinds of violence,” said Belhadj, while El-Haski stressed that he was ”not linked in any way” to the bombings.

They also denied any connection with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network that, according to prosecutors, provided the inspiration for the coordinated attacks on four packed commuter trains that left more than 1 800 people injured.

Both men are among four of the alleged masterminds behind the bombings. Another, Rabei Ousmane Sayed Ahmed, declared his innocence on Thursday.

All three men refused to address the court, save for their defence counsel.

Also in the dock on Friday was one of the actual alleged bombers, Jamal Zougam, who denied being at the scene of the crime. ”It’s impossible I was there. I was asleep at home,” said Zougam (33). Four witnesses claimed to have seen him on one of the targeted trains.

Unlike the others, Zougam agreed to address the prosecution.

El-Haski, meanwhile, denied the existence of the Moroccan Islamic Combat Group (GICM), which authorities claim he led in Europe and played a part in the bombings. ”The group is a fiction,” said El-Haski, who also argued that al-Qaeda ”doesn’t exist”.

El-Haski said he deplored the carnage reaped by the 2004 bombings. ”Any Muslim would condemn these acts. This is a crime. Who can accept attacks on innocent people?” he said.

Ousmane, nicknamed ”Mohammed the Egyptian”, had on Thursday also condemned the blasts, as well as the September 11 attacks in the United States and the July 2005 London bombings.

Extremists

The prosecution says the Madrid blasts, the worst terrorist attack in Europe since the 1988 Lockerbie bombing left 270 people dead, were the work of Islamic extremists angered by Spanish participation in the US-led intervention in Iraq.

In his charge sheet drawn up 10 months ago, examining magistrate Juan del Olmo attributed the attacks to the GICM, dubbed a North African al-Qaeda offshoot also operative in Europe.

Belhadj insisted in his testimony that he did not know ”Mohammed the Egyptian” or the other main plotters, who have also denied knowing each other.

The 30-year-old from the Moroccan town of Touzine also denied being ”Abou Dujanah”, al-Qaeda spokesperson in Europe, who appeared on a video claiming responsibility for the blasts. Investigators found the videotape in a dustbin outside the main Madrid mosque two days after the attack.

Belhadj, Ousmane, El-Haski, Zougam and three other suspects, including a Spaniard accused of trafficking the explosives used in the bombings, face jail terms of about 40 000 years for the blasts.

Zougam ran a phone centre where investigators say the plotters bought the cellphones and SIM cards that were strapped to the explosives used on the trains, packed with early-morning commuters.

Moroccan Abdelmajid Bouchar and Syrian Basel Ghalyoun, also accused of placing the bombs, will be called to testify later in the trial, which is due to end in July before the verdicts are announced around October.

Seven other men believed to have led and coordinated the attacks blew themselves up during a police raid on an apartment in the Madrid suburb of Leganes three weeks after the attacks. Three others are unaccounted for. — Sapa-AFP

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