The trial of a Belgian terror cell with links to the Paris and Brussels attacks has begun. Criticized by many for failing to prevent the attacks in Brussels, Belgian leaders have highlighted the operation as a success.
Police who raided the hideout in Verviers, eastern Belgium, discovered weapons, munitions and chemical products that could have been used to make four kilograms of TATP, highly volatile homemade explosives used by so-called Islamic State jihadists.
TATP was used in both the November 13 Paris attacks and the March 22 Brussels bombings, Judge Pierre Hendrickx heard.
He listed the chemicals as five litres (1.3 gallons) of bleach, 15 liters of acetone and 12 liters of hydrogen peroxide. The police also found a detonator, he added.
Chairman Pierre Hendrickx pictured during the introduction of the trial on the terrorist cell of Verviers, at the Brussels correctional court, Friday 15 April 2016
Police - backed by French GIGN paramilitary officers - also found three AK-47 assault rifles, four handguns, hundreds of cartridges and material to make police uniforms.
Of the 16 accused, nine are still at large - two Belgians, two Moroccans, four Frenchmen and one Dutch national, the Belga news agency reported. All are the subject of international arrest warrants.
The judge gave details of how security services had used telephone taps to help combat a potential threat from the over 300 Belgians who have fought in Syria.
Via tapping telephones and shadowing suspects, investigators discovered the use of what they called "worrying" coded language that suggested an attack was imminent.
French paramilitary unit GIGN's director Hubert Bonneau said "their idea was to kidnap a senior Belgian official and decapitate him in order to run the images on the Internet."
The raid in Verviers took place two weeks after jihadist attacks in Paris against the Charlie Hebdo satirical newspaper and a Jewish supermarket that left 17 people dead.
The main suspects
The key suspect at the trial is Marouane El Bali, accused of attempted murder after firing at police during a gunfight in which two suspected jihadists were killed. Belgian police believe the cell was planning to kill and kidnap police officers under orders from Islamic State group.
El Bali, who denies the charges, is one of seven men standing trial.
Abdelhamid Abaaoud - the suspected ringleader of November's Paris attacks - was reportedly giving orders to the Verviers cell by phone from Greece using the name of "Omar."
Abaaoud - who was killed in a shootout in Paris a few days after the attacks - also had close links to the cell behind the Brussels airport and metro attacks, both of which were claimed by the Islamic State jihadist group.
"He was a small player and was absolutely not aware of any planned attacks," his lawyer Sebastien Courtoy told the Belga news agency. "He joined only the group on the eve of the raid. He was not able to plan the attack."
Omar Damache, an Algerian who was arrested at an address in Athens where police believe they had zeroed in on Abaaoud, is also on trial having been extradited to Belgium.
The trial is expected to last around three weeks.
jbh/bw (AFP, AP, Reuters, dpa)