By Raf Casert and Sylvain Plazy / Associated Press
BRUSSELS — A married couple with Iranian heritage was arrested “just in time” in Belgium as they allegedly prepared to head to France to bomb a large rally that an Iranian opposition group held over the weekend, authorities said Monday.
The federal prosecutor’s office said the Belgian citizens were charged with “attempt at terrorist murder and preparing a terrorist crime” against the group, the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq. U.S. President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, was among the speakers at the Saturday rally in the French town of Villepinte near Paris.
Investigators who stopped the couple Saturday and searched their car found about half a kilogram (more than a pound) of TATP explosives and a detonator, federal magistrate Eric Van der Sijpt said.
That could cause a sizeable explosion, considerable bloodshed and widespread panic in a crowd that was estimated to have reached 25,000 people.
“We can say we arrested them just in time,” Van der Sijpt told The Associated Press.
As well as Iranian exiles, there were several American speakers at the event in a packed hall at an exhibition center north of Paris.
“They were planning a terrorist attack at a conference. I don’t know if they were targeting somebody special,” Van der Sijpt said.
A man detained in Germany appeared to be an Iranian diplomat from Vienna, Van de Sijpt said. The Mujahedeen-e-Khalq quickly sought to implicate the Iranian government.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif called the allegations of a foiled extremist plot a ploy.
“How convenient: Just as we embark on a presidential visit to Europe, an alleged Iranian operation and its ‘plotters arrested,” Zarif said in a Twitter message. “Iran unequivocally condemns all violence & terror anywhere.”
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani began a two-day visit to Switzerland on Monday and is expected to travel to Austria next.
The Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, widely known as MEK, is an exiled Iranian opposition group detested by the Islamic Republic of Iran. The formerly armed group had been on European Union and U.S. terrorism lists before being delisted from both. The weekend rally had sought to plant the seeds for regime change in Iran.
“Regime change in Iran is within reach as never before,” leader Maryam Rajavi said at the event.
The Belgian prosecutors’ office said Belgian security services, France’s domestic intelligence service and German judicial authorities had been instrumental in preventing another terror attack in France.
Police raided five homes after the couple was detained but did not disclose if they found additional evidence.
Three people also were detained for questioning in France, but two of them were released Monday with no “incriminating elements” uncovered, a French judicial official source said. Investigators worked to determine the Belgian suspects’ ties to the third person detained in France, according to the judicial source who asked to remain anonymous because he wasn’t authorized to discuss an ongoing investigation.
Trump’s recent appointment of John Bolton, who spoke at a MEK rally before he became national security adviser, and Giuliani, a regular MEK headliner, are seen as moves that could strengthen the group’s bid for U.S. backing.
TATP, the explosive that Belgian authorities said was found in the suspects’ car, has been used in several terror attacks in Europe in recent years, including the 2016 bombings in Brussels that killed 32 people.
Elaine Ganley and Lori Hinnant in Paris and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.