France Sentences 10 for 2000 Bomb Plot

Ten Islamic militants were convicted and sentenced to prison Thursday for a plot to blow up a crowded Christmas market on New Year's Eve 2000 — a bombing that a prosecutor said was avoided "by a hair" and could have triggered the first bloodbath of the new millennium.

The suspects — Algerian nationals and French citizens of Algerian origin who included an alleged associate of Al Qaeda (search) leader Usama bin Laden (search) — were sentenced to prison terms of one to 10 years for their roles in the foiled attempt to strike the market in the eastern city of Strasbourg (search).

They were convicted of criminal association with a terrorist enterprise that state prosecutor Christophe Tessier alleged had links to Islamic networks in Britain, Italy and Spain.

Cooperation between French and German police led to the arrest in late 2000 of a Frankfurt-based group of Algerians who allegedly planned to attack the market on New Year's Eve 2000. The bombing "was avoided by a hair," Tessier said last month.

The 10 were suspected of varying degrees of involvement. Strasbourg's well-known market is set up around the city's cathedral during the Christmas period and becomes a major gathering place.

France opened an investigation after four suspected Islamic radicals were arrested in Frankfurt, Germany, in possession of a map of Strasbourg and a video cassette showing the market.

The four were convicted in Germany in March 2003 and received prison terms ranging from 10 to 12 years. The German court said the group had planned to blow up pressure cookers packed with explosives, a technique they allegedly learned in Afghan camps.

Those tried in Paris included Slimane Khalfaoui, 29, Yacine Akhnouche, 30, Rabah Kadri, 37 and Mohamed Bensakria, 37 — considered one of bin Laden's lieutenants in Europe. Bensakria was extradited from Spain in the summer of 2001.

Khalfaoui and Bensakria received maximum 10-year sentences.

Kadri was arrested in London in 2002 and remains in a British prison. He was tried in absentia and sentenced to six years' imprisonment; Akhnouche received an eight-year sentence.

The six others were mostly suspected to have given logistical support to the plot, notably by supplying false papers to other group members. The trial began in October.

Khalfaoui's lawyer, Isabelle Coutant-Peyre, denounced the convictions and sentences as "evidence that French institutions, and justice in particular, are racist, anti-Arab and Islamophobic."