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Belgium arrests 14 Muslim extremists for allegedly plotting to free al-Qaida sympathizer

    BRUSSELS, Belgium — Belgian police Friday arrested 14 Muslim extremists suspected of planning the jailbreak of an al-Qaida prisoner convicted of plotting a terrorist attack on U.S. air base personnel, officials said.
    Extra police were deployed across the capital at airports, subway stations and other public places. The U.S. Embassy warned Americans of ‘‘a heightened risk of terrorist attack in Brussels,’’ although it had no indication of any American targets.
    Police arrested the 14 in all-night raids across the country and discovered arms and explosives apparently intended for the jailbreak.
    The prisoner, Nizar Trabelsi, a 37-year-old Tunisian who played soccer for several German teams, was sentenced to the maximum 10 years in jail four years ago. He had admitted planning to drive a car bomb into the canteen at Kleine Brogel, a Belgian air base where about 100 American military personnel are stationed.
    Trabelsi was sent to the high-security unit of Lantin jail, 60 miles east of Brussels, but there have been reports that he has been moved since then. Police have refused to confirm the reports.
    The federal prosecutor’s office said the 14 were planning to free Trabelsi by force, and the government did not rule out the possibility that other attacks had been planned.
    ‘‘If a group with an extremist view of Islam were ready to use arms and explosives to release Mr. Trabelsi, there is no guarantee that they would not use them for other ends,’’ said Lieve Pellens, spokeswoman for the federal prosecutor’s office.
    The Kleine Brogel base is home to Belgian F-16 warplanes equipped with nuclear weapons that are under U.S. control, according GlobalSecurity.org, a U.S.-based military affairs think tank.
    Trabelsi, who testified that he intended kill U.S. soldiers, says he met Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and asked to become a suicide bomber. He was arrested in Brussels on Sept. 13, 2001. Police later discovered the raw materials for a huge bomb in the back of a Brussels restaurant.
    Trabelsi came to Europe in 1989 for a tryout with the German first-division team Fortuna Duesseldorf. The 19-year-old forward got a contract but never made it off the reserve list and was soon let go.
    In the next few years, he bounced between minor league teams, acquiring a cocaine habit and lengthy criminal record. Eventually, he made his way to al-Qaida training camps in Afghanistan, where trial evidence showed he had placed himself on a ‘‘list of martyrs’’ ready to commit suicide attacks.
    Police checked the cobblestoned square of the historic Grand Place adorned with a huge Christmas tree for suspicious packages or bags, and the Interior Ministry urged citizens to immediately report anything suspicious. The heightened security was expected to last until at least the day after New Year.
    The U.S. Embassy urged U.S. citizens living or traveling in Belgium to maintain a high level of vigilance, especially in crowded places. But it had ‘‘no information to indicate that U.S. citizens or facilities are an intended target.’’

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