Australia mounts new raids, says major terror attack foiled


SYDNEY (AFP) - Australian police launched fresh raids late after officials said they had foiled a "catastrophic act of terrorism" inspired by a radical Islamic cleric with the arrest of 17 suspects earlier in the day.

Federal police said Tuesday they searched a home in the southwest Sydney suburb of Revesby Tuesday night as part of the sweep begun before dawn. A spokesman would not comment on a radio report that a woman and two children had been taken from the house and that a second home in a nearby suburb was also raided. The pre-dawn raids in the two largest cities of Melbourne and Sydney involved more than 450 heavily-armed officers backed by helicopters in Australia`s largest anti-terror operation. Police said one suspect was shot and seriously wounded after he fired at them. The raids came less than a week after Prime Minister John Howard said he had credible information an attack was being planned and pushed an amendment to counter-terrorism laws through parliament. The suspects were rushed to court within hours of their arrest. Prosecutors said chemicals seized in the raids were similar to those used in July`s London suicide transport bombings which killed more than 50 people. A court in Melbourne was told the suspects were committed to holy war and prepared to kill Australians and had discussed staging suicide bombings. At least five of the accused are Australian citizens. "Thankfully, the police forces of this country might just have prevented a catastrophic act of terrorism in this country," New South Wales Police Minister Carl Scully told reporters. Police said they arrested seven people in Sydney and nine in Melbourne as a 16-month investigation culminated in pre-dawn raids on more than 20 homes. Several hours afterwards another suspect was shot in the neck and critically injured after he fired at police who ordered him to stop as he walked along a suburban Sydney street near a mosque, police said. NSW police commissioner Ken Moroney said the operation was ongoing and he expected further arrests in coming days and weeks. Among those arrested in Melbourne was Algerian-born cleric Abu Bakr, also known as also known as Abdul Nacer Benbrika. Prosecutors said he was the leader of both the Sydney and Melbourne groups, which were "committed to the cause of violent jihad" or holy war. The 45-year-old cleric, who has previously praised Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden as "a great man", was charged with directing activities of a "terrorist organisation" while the other Melbourne suspects were charged with membership of the organisation. Prosecutors allege one of the men, named in court as Abdul Amahi, discussed becoming a suicide bomber because he wanted revenge on "infidels" for the war in Iraq, where Australia has sent troops. The Sydney suspects were charged with preparing to manufacture explosives in preparation for a terrorist act. All those charged in both cities were refused bail. The authorities did not detail any targets selected by the group but have said in recent months that suspects had carried out surveillance on the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge, railway stations and the Melbourne stock exchange. Victoria state police commissioner Christine Nixon said the alleged plot did not involve next year`s Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. Federal police said they were examining computers seized during the raids for any evidence of links to international militant groups. The arrests came days after the government passed an urgent amendment to anti-terrorism laws making it easier for police to prosecute suspects involved in the early stages of planning attacks. The amendment was passed in response to Howard`s warning of a credible threat of attack, which critics had suggested was scaremongering to distract attention from his conservative government`s political problems. Howard, a close ally of US President George W. Bush who contributed troops to the invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq, said after the arrests that he would never exploit security issues for his own political ends. Australia has not been attacked on its own soil in recent years but its citizens have been targeted elsewhere. A suicide bomber hit the Australian embassy in Jakarta last year, and dozens of Australians were killed in attacks on the Indonesian resort island of Bali in 2002 and earlier this year.

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