Hungarians Report Thwarting Terror Plot

Published April 13, 2004

| Associated Press

Hungarian police arrested three Arabs, including the spiritual leader of an Islamic community in Budapest, and suggested Tuesday they plotted to bomb the country's new Holocaust museum during a visit by Israeli President Moshe Katsav (search).

An aide to Katsav and Israeli diplomats said the president was the target of the alleged conspiracy. One Israeli analyst suggested the plot may have been motivated by Israel's assassination last month of Sheik Ahmed Yassin (search), founder of the Islamic militant group Hamas.

Although Hamas vowed revenge against Israeli leaders, Hungarian police said they found no link to Hamas in this plot. They also denied a link between Katsav's visit and the planned attack.

"There is no connection whatsoever between today's official visit by the Israeli president and the police action taken this morning," National Police Commissioner Laszlo Salgo (search) said.

A senior Interior Ministry official, Tibor Pal, also said Katsav's presence in the Hungarian capital "has nothing to do with the police action taken today."

Police said investigations leading to the arrest revealed no specific date or target for the attack.

For months, authorities monitored phone calls by one suspect, a 42-year-old Palestinian dentist who became a naturalized Hungarian citizen, to acquaintances "to get explosives," Police Lt. Col. Attila Petofi said.

During one call, "he asked an acquaintance to use the explosive to blow up a Jewish museum," Petofi said.

The only permanent Jewish museum in the capital is the Holocaust Memorial Center (search) to be inaugurated Thursday by Katsav.

The dentist allegedly was preparing for a terrorist attack, Petofi said.

The two Syrians were charged with preparing for a crime against property, he said without elaborating.

The investigation turned up no explosives or weapons so far, police said.

The arrests were made as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon arrived in Washington to win U.S. backing for a plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank in exchange for expanding five large West Bank settlement blocs.

Initial Israeli assertions that Katsav was the target led to speculation the conspiracy was possible retaliation for the March 22 assassination of Yassin.

"Police in Hungary arrested three suspects on suspicion they tried to kill the president," senior Katsav aide Moshe Mizrahi told The Associated Press.

After Yassin was killed by Israeli helicopters, new Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal said Palestinian militants were duty-bound to kill Sharon and other Israeli leaders.

"It is the right, or rather the duty, of resistance to target the heads of Zionist terrorism in the same way that they [Israelis] have been targeting the symbols of resistance during the past decades, including its late and greatest symbol Yassin," Mashaal said at the time.

Boaz Ganor, an anti-terrorism expert from Israel's Herzliya Interdisciplinary Institute (search), said the plot probably was linked to the Yassin assassination. He said Hamas itself or another radical Islamic group acting in solidarity with Hamas because of Yassin could have been behind the attempt.

But Hungarian police named no link to Hamas, and Petofi said there was no immediate link to Al Qaeda.

"We do not yet know what the motives of the act were," he said. "We could not afford to wait ... for the preparations to turn into a real crime."

Katsav was informed of the plot as he met with Hungarian President Ferenc Madl (search) in Budapest, said Moshe Mizrahi, a senior official in Katsav's office.

After that meeting, Katsav told reporters, "I trust in the Hungarian security forces and I trust in the Israeli security forces. I jokingly told President Madl that it would be better if he stays three steps away from me."

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