Australian detectives work on evidence

Detectives examined evidence Wednesday seized in a string of raids a day earlier in two Australian cities that police said headed off a major terror attack and led to the arrest of 17 suspects.

Chemicals believed to be of the same type used in the deadly July 7 London bombings were confiscated in the raids in Sydney and Melbourne, along with computers, documents and backpacks.

Victoria Police acting Deputy Commissioner Noel Ashby said police and security agencies were examining the evidence and could file more charges against nine men arrested in Melbourne and eight in Sydney.

"As a consequence of that (evidence) and as a consequence of the other information that we may obtain, we will then look at other criminal charges," he told reporters, without elaborating.

"There is an immense amount of detail that we need to look at, so we would say that there is every likelihood that other charges would be laid," he added.

One of the suspects was charged with terror offenses and intent to murder during a special bedside hearing Wednesday at the hospital where he was recovering from a neck wound after being hit Tuesday in a shoot out with police.

Omar Baladjam was reported in stable condition at a heavily guarded hospital in western Sydney. He was ordered to appear in court Friday with the seven other Sydney suspects.

Prosecutors said the Sydney and Melbourne cells were both led by 45-year-old firebrand cleric Abu Bakr, an Australian born in Algeria.

Two suspects in Melbourne had their application to be released on bail rejected by magistrate Reg Marron, who said allegations they were prepared to kill innocent women and children were "extremely alarming." They were jailed until a hearing scheduled for Jan. 31.

But Marron also criticized the case against the terror suspects, saying evidence of links between the Sydney and Melbourne cells was "vague and unclear" and describing the prosecution case as a "work in progress."

Members of Australia's 300,000-strong Muslim community said Wednesday they fear being vilified, and Prime Minister John Howard took to the airwaves to assure them they were not being singled out by security forces.

"I do want to take this opportunity of saying to Australians of Islamic faith that you are part of our community; nothing that this government has done or will do is directed against you as a group," Howard told radio 2UE.

But a moderate Islamic leader warned that images of bearded men being led into courts and their supporters attacking news crews would hurt Muslims across multicultural Australia.

Police allege the suspects were stockpiling bomb-making chemicals but had not settled on a target.

Detectives expect more arrests in coming days and weeks, the AP reports.

Photo: the AP


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