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Romania Battles Extremists

Bucharest hopes its firm support for US action on Iraq and strong stand against suspected extremist groups will ease its path into NATO.
By Daniela Tuchel

Romanian officials have hinted that the country is ready to expand its role in the American-led "war against terrorism" in a bid to boost its hopes of joining NATO.


Defence minister George Maior announced last week that Bucharest could take part in any US action against Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq.


The statement came almost a year after Romania contributed troops to the international operation in Afghanistan, provided Washington with intelligence and access to its airbases for military operations in Central Asia.


The government also adopted a bill on August 23 to ratify the international convention on halting the financing of extremist groups, obliging Romania to identify and block funds destined for such organisations.


The bill follows similar measures, such as longer prison sentences for those convicted of terrorist activities or alarming the population through threats or hoaxes. The former crimes are now punishable by up to 30 years in prison, the latter carry jail terms ranging from three months to three years.


"Romania was quick to take proper legislative measures to combat the scourge of terrorism in the wake of the September 11 attacks in the US," military analyst Radu Tudor told IWPR. "However, due to widespread poverty and political instability, the country remains an ideal breeding ground for terrorism."


The Romanian Intelligence Service, SRI, shares this opinion. In its 2001 report, the agency claimed several foreign extremist cells were active in the country, including those of the Palestinian militant group Hamas, Hezbullah, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the radical wing of the Kurdistan Workers' Party.


Many of these are said to have flourished under the repressive regime of Nicolae Ceausescu. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's liaison officer for Romania, Ali Hassan Salameh, had led the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, PLO, commando team that took the Israeli athletes hostage at the Munich Olympic in 1974.


The Ceausescu regime also sheltered for a few years Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, aka Carlos the Jackal, supplying him with arms and ammunition.


Over the year, hundreds of representatives of militant groups had reportedly entered the country to raise funds through illegal activities such as forgery, burglary, drug trafficking and arms smuggling.


Ion Stan, the parliamentary deputy who chairs the commission overseeing SRI activities, revealed that between 1999 and 2001, some 323 million US dollars were transferred illegally from Romania to foreign bank accounts owned by businessmen known to be linked to Islamic radical groups.


According to the 2001 report, several attempts to legally register such organisations have been foiled.


Late last year, an investigation ordered by Prime Minister Adrian Nastase claimed that Arab businessmen resident in Romania had channeled hundreds of millions of dollars to militant groups through legally established companies.


One Egyptian businessman had reportedly transferred some 150 million dollars to associates in his home country who are closely linked to Islamic extremists. The money was registered as "advance payment" for goods that were never delivered. Bucharest officials said all such transactions were traced back to Arab nationals in Romania.


The SRI stressed, however, that there was no evidence of any link between the al-Qaeda network and Romania, and that its leader Osama bin Laden had no bank accounts in the country.


Since the September 11 attacks, several Arab nationals have been under suspicion. Attala Mohamid Attala, a Palestinian, was arrested for robbing several foreign students at the medical faculty at Constanta in eastern Romania, and later accused of belonging to "a terrorist network".


A more controversial case concerned the October 2001 expulsion of an Iraqi diplomat involved in "activities incompatible with his diplomatic status". The local press claimed he was an agent of the Iraqi secret services, working covertly in Bucharest. Iraqi diplomatic sources described the allegations as "groundless".


Some parliamentarians complain that Romanian intelligence services are stepping up their activities against alleged extremist groups in the country to boost the government's standing in the West ahead of NATO summit in Prague scheduled in November.


Daniela Tuchel is a Bucharest-based journalist for the daily newspaper Libertatea


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