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Egypt detains chemistry student sought in London bombings

LONDON—An Egyptian chemistry student sought for questioning by the British police and under arrest in Cairo, Egypt, was friends with one of the men suspected of triggering London's mass transit bombs, British news organizations reported Friday. Police said they were considering sending agents to Egypt to question him.

Magdy el-Nashar, 33, who once studied at North Carolina State University, was detained by Egyptian police sometime in the past week, according to the Egyptian Interior Ministry. The ministry said el-Nashar had denied involvement in the bombings and had expected to return to England to resume his studies after a six-week holiday. The ministry didn't say when he was arrested.

British police called his arrest a "very significant development" in a case that London Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair said increasingly appears to be an al-Qaida terrorist operation.

Blair said police believe that the four men who died setting off the explosions on July 7 were "foot soldiers" and that someone else had planned and directed the blasts, which killed at least 54 people. Forty-one people have been positively identified, police said.

One key element in the probe is the discovery of a chemical, acetone peroxide, at a "bomb factory" in Burley, near the city of Leeds. The highly volatile chemical is used to make the explosive TATP, or triacetone triperoxide, which police said has been used in previous al-Qaida-linked actions, including the thwarted effort by shoe-bomber Richard Reid to attack a Paris-to-Miami flight.

"The dead men seem to be foot soldiers," Blair said. "What we've got to find is the people who trained them, the people who encouraged them, who trained them and who financed them. We've got to find the chemist."

Blair said the police were pursuing information about a low-level al-Qaida operative who entered England about two weeks before the attacks and left the country only hours ahead of the first explosions, which struck three subway trains almost simultaneously at 8:50 a.m. The fourth blast occurred at 9:47 a.m. aboard a double-decker bus.

Blair refused to discuss the detention of el-Nashar, who British papers said had befriended one of the four suspected bombers, Lyndsay Jermain, 19, at a mosque while el-Nashar was studying biochemistry at Leeds University.

Police found "forensic evidence" of Jermain in the wreckage of the Russell Square subway train, where he was one of at least 26 people killed by the blast from the backpack bomb he allegedly carried.

Jermain was a Jamaican-born British resident about whom police admit to knowing so little that even the spelling of his name is in question. He's thought to have joined the other three bombers in Luton to catch a train into London's King's Cross station early July 7.

Early this week, police raided an apartment that el-Nashar apparently had rented out to one of the bombers. The search found evidence of explosives, according to The Times of London.

El-Nashar apparently left England before the attacks, news reports have said.

Terror expert Paul Cornish, head of the international security program at London research center Chatham House, said the swift success of the investigation to this point is breathtaking.

"It's so quick, so good, so successful that either they're simply getting very lucky or they knew a lot before this happened," he said. " I don't think they had foreknowledge, but perhaps templates of possibilities, who might be involved if certain things happened. It is certainly clear they were well prepared."

Meanwhile, the British police stepped up a campaign to solicit support for the investigation from Muslim leaders.

Blair began visiting religious centers on Friday and said his officers would visit every religious group in London in coming days.

At the Minhaj-ul-Quran mosque Friday afternoon, the police commissioner said condemnation of the attacks wasn't enough and that Muslims must begin reporting those who advocate terrorist attacks.

He noted that London had only 300 Muslim police officers.

"We need to know who the young men preaching outside the mosque are, rather than who is preaching inside," Blair told worshippers at the mosque. "We have to find ways of identifying the preachers of hate and to whom they're talking. We have to find the vulnerable young men and women.

"We need you."

Police have insisted that the four suicide bombers were so-called "clean-skins," meaning not connected to past terror investigations (though one was briefly mentioned in a past investigation, but not considered involved).

But two of the suspects, Hasib Hussain, 18, thought to have triggered the blast aboard the double-decker bus, and Shehzad Tanweer, 22, suspected in the Aldgate subway attack, are known to have visited Pakistan for religious training.

The fourth bomber, Mohammad Sidique Khan, 30, is suspected in the Edgware Road subway bombing.

Hussain's family issued a statement Friday evening, saying their son was a "loving and normal young man" and that they were "devastated" by the attacks.

"We would have done anything in our power to stop him," the statement said.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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