Australian police arrests 17 people

Australian police arrested 17 people in Sydney and Melbourne for allegedly stockpiling explosive chemicals for use in a terrorist attack. ``Thankfully, the police forces of this country may just have prevented a catastrophic act of terrorism,'' New South Wales state Police Minister Carl Scully told reporters in Sydney. The statement was broadcast on Sky television.

A force of 400 police and intelligence officers used helicopters with searchlights in raids on 22 properties in Sydney and Melbourne early today after a 16-month investigation, Scully said. Australia's largest anti-terrorism operation came after the government passed tougher laws to combat terrorists through parliament last week. Australia, which has soldiers serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, has been on terrorism alert since 2001. While there hasn't been a major terrorist attack in Australia, the government has maintained it is a possibility.

Abdul Rakib Hasan, 36, Khaled Sharrouf, 24, Khaled Cheikho, 32, Moustafa Cheikho, 28, Mirsad Mulahalilovic, 29, Mazen Touma, 25 and Mohamed Ali Elomar, 40, were charged in Sydney's Central Local Court with preparing or planning a terrorist attack, court spokesman Angus Hunstdale said.

Another suspect was shot during the raids at Green Valley, a suburb southwest of Sydney, Australian Justice Minister Chris Ellison said. The man underwent surgery in a Sydney hospital and is in a critical condition, Ellison said. The man, who hasn't been charged, is under police guard, Liverpool Hospital said.

``This is a case of preventing a terrorist act occurring,'' Moroney said during a media conference with Scully. ``We can reasonably assume that Sydney or Melbourne were the specific targets.''

The nine people arrested in Melbourne include Muslim cleric Abu Bakr, prosecutor Richard Maidment told the Melbourne Magistrate's Court, according to the Herald Sun newspaper's Web site. Bakr made headlines in August when he publicly stated his support for al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

All the detainees face charges including conspiracy to commit a terrorist act, being a member of a terrorist group and directing a terrorist organization, which carries a 25-year jail term, Moroney said.

The chemicals found were similar to those discovered in explosives used in attacks in London on July 7, Moroney said.

``The linkages appear to be common in terms of the chemicals that have been used in London and the chemicals we will allege were being gathered here,'' he said.

Suicide bombers in the U.K. capital killed 52 people in attacks on underground trains and a bus. The government of Prime Minister Tony Blair is seeking to tighten rules on terrorism suspects by allowing longer detentions and outlawing acts that encourage terrorism.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard last week said the government had received information on a credible terrorism threat. He recalled legislators to pass laws to give police extra powers to deal with the threat, which he declined to specify.

``This country has never been immune from a possible terrorist attack,'' Howard told reporters in Canberra.

Australian citizens were among the 202 people who died in bomb explosions in Bali in October 2002, which was Indonesia's worst terrorist attack. Last month, Australians were also among 20 people killed by suicide bombers in Bali. I.L.

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