Italian prosecutors have accused two men, arrested last year for links to trafficking in illegal immigrants, of being leading al Qaeda figures in Europe involved in training militants for suicide attacks.

Police in the southern city of Bari yesterday said the two men, identified as Syrian imam Bassam Ayachi and French computer engineer Raphael Gendron, played a leading role in "communication, transmission and propaganda" for al Qaeda.

They were arrested by Italian police in November 2008 on suspicion of trying to smuggle five illegal immigrants into Italy. Among the documents found on them was the will of a would-be suicide attacker, detailing the compensation to his family after his death, police said.

Prosecutors issued new arrest warrants accusing the two of criminal association linked to international terrorism.

"We are extremely satisfied to have stopped the masterminds, the heads of the organisation, the people who educated would-be suicide attackers in the name of Jihad," said Stanislao Chimera, head of the Digos anti-terrorist squad in Bari.

Documents found in their possession mentioned attacks in France and Britain, "but as a mere possibility, without anything concrete or any immediate threat", Claudio Galzerano of Ucigos, another police anti-terrorism unit, said.

Tapped conversations between the two men in prison referred to an attack on Paris Charles de Gaulle airport, without giving precise details, prosecutors in Bari said.

Mr Ayachi's son and Mr Gendron, who has been resident in Belgium for some time, were found guilty in January 2009 by the European Court in Brussels of inciting hatred and violence against Jews.

They received €2,000 fines and were sentenced to a month in jail. The two men used to run an Islamic Belgian internet site.

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