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Toronto mosque vandalized after 17 arrests

Written by: Staff

TORONTO, June 4 (Reuters) Vandals smashed windows of a Toronto mosque after a weekend police sweep that netted 17 suspected al Qaeda sympathizers accused of plotting bomb attacks, and Canadian Muslims expressed fear today that a backlash had begun.

''Numerous windows were smashed'' at the mosque either late yesterday or early today and the incident was being investigated, a police official said in an interview.

A second official said he had no information on whether there was a link between the vandalism and the arrests.

Mohammad Alam, the president Islamic Foundation of Toronto, said the incident may be the beginning of religiously motivated reprisals against the country's Muslim population, estimated at more than 600,000.

While he said he backed the government's efforts at stamping out terrorism, Alam noted that nothing has been proven thus far in the case, which has gripped the country.

''Like everybody knows, this is so far all allegation,'' Alam said. ''To us, it doesn't matter what religion they belong to -- if they're a terrorist, they're a terrorist, they should be punished according to the law.'' Tarek Fatah, spokesman for the Muslim Canadian Congress, said he felt ''a mixture of shock and relief'' following the arrests, which began late Friday. ''It's too close to home,'' he said.

The suspects, all from Ontario, remained in custody ahead of their next court appearance, scheduled for Tuesday.

Police say the men arrested on terrorism charges had amassed enough explosives to build a bomb larger than the one used in the 1995 federal building bombing in Oklahoma City, which killed 168 people, and were planning to blow up targets in Ontario, Canada's political and economic heart.

The arrested men, all Canadian residents or citizens, made a brief court appearance yesterday. The 12 adults were sent to a high-security prison outside Toronto while the five youths were dispatched to area jails.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police is also wary of reaction to the arrests. However, Acting Sgt. Michele Paradis said today ''this isn't about religion or ethnic groups. This is about criminal behavior.'' Paradis said the police do not anticipate more arrests, but noted that ''reams'' of evidence still must be analyzed.

The Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations expressed ''relief that potential terror attacks in the city of Toronto have been averted'' and asked Muslims to co-operate with security agencies to fight terrorism.

Lawyers for some of the suspects expressed dismay at the presence of armed officers inside the court during yesterday's hearing, saying it was prejudicial to their case.

Family and supporters said the allegations motivated by suspicion toward Muslims.

''It's going to come down to nothing, that I'm sure of,'' said Mohammed Abdelhaleen, whose son Shareef is among the accused. ''I'm suggesting there to be no foundation, for any of them. They are playing a political game.'' Police said the group had acquired three tonnes of ammonium nitrate -- or three times the amount used in the Oklahoma City bombing.

Canadian Security Intelligence Service said the men had become ''adherents of a violent ideology inspired by al Qaeda.'' The spy service has warned in recent years that a terror attack on Canadian soil was probably inevitable.

Reuters PDS VP0050

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