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Nine Accused Of Al-Qaeda Ties On Trial In Belgium

Moez Garsallaoui (right) and his wife, Belgian Malika el-Aroud, arrive at the Federal Criminal Court in Bellinzona, Switzerland in June 2007.
BRUSSELS (Reuters) -- Nine people suspected of links with Al-Qaeda, including one who prosecutors say may have been planning a suicide attack, went on trial in Belgium today, facing possible prison terms of up to 10 years.

Malika el-Aroud, 50, and her husband Moez Garsalloui stand accused of leading a terrorist group, while a third principal defendant, 25-year-old Hicham Beyayo, is charged with handling explosives and membership of a terrorist organization.

Under Belgian law, suspects can be prosecuted for handling explosives, for instance in terrorist training, even outside the country.

Prosecutors said in December 2008 that Beyayo was possibly planning a suicide attack and were forced to act as a summit of leaders from the 27 European Union countries was taking place in Brussels, the home of many EU institutions.

In an e-mail intercepted by investigators that month, Beyayo said he had received clearance to carry out an operation from which he would not return.

But that message was only aimed at impressing an ex-girlfriend in an effort to win her back, his lawyer said today, and he has not been formally charged with plotting such an attack.

"He travelled to a training camp in Afghanistan, but he never planned an attack in Belgium," Christophe Marchand told reporters on the sidelines of the high-security hearing.

Federal prosecution spokeswoman Lieve Pellens said there was never any concrete evidence suggesting the attack might take place in Belgium.

Six other defendants are being prosecuted for suspected membership of a terrorist organization and are also charged with handling explosives at a training camp on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

The nine were arrested in raids carried out around Belgium.

El-Aroud is well-known to security officials as a propagandist on militant Islamist websites, although she denies any involvement with weapons or bombings.

"She is against all the attacks that happened in the past, such as in New York and London, and is also against any future terrorist attacks," el-Aroud's lawyer told reporters.

El-Aroud, the widow of one of the two men who assassinated anti-Taliban Afghan rebel leader Ahmad Shah Mas'ud two days before the September 11 attacks in 2001, has been detained in Belgium since December 2008, along with Beyayo.

Garsalloui is still at large.

The hearings will continue until March 26, with a ruling expected around end April.