Italy's top security official said Thursday that authorities have smashed an international terror cell with the arrest in Italy and elsewhere in Europe of 17 Algerians who were raising money to finance terrorism.
Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, speaking to reporters in Rome, called the terror cell "significant."
"An Algerian terror cell that gathered money for terrorist activities outside of Europe has been dismantled," Maroni said.
The arrests stemmed from an anti-terrorism investigation in Milan, and anti-terrorist units from Algeria, Austria, Britain, France, Spain and Switzerland cooperated in the probe, Milan police said.
Six of the arrests were in Italy, police said in a statement. Two others were carried out in Vienna, Austrian Interior Ministry spokesman Rudolf Gollia told the AP.
Milan Prosecutor Armando Spataro said the initial investigation involved terrorism, but the suspects were being held on charges of criminal association and falsifying documents _ not the charge of international terrorism introduced in Italy after the Sept. 11 attacks. He said investigators were still working on the case.
Milan police said the investigation, which started in 2007, uncovered an active organization with several international connections.
Police said the organization had the aim of sending money to Algeria, and raised an estimated euro1 million ($1.5 million) over the past three years from crimes such as burglaries and thefts. It sent the money to Algeria in tranches of about euro10,000 ($15,000), according to police.
The organization forged documents and on some occasions stole the identities of Algerian soccer players who play in European professional leagues, police said, without naming any of the players. The fake documents were given to associates, allowing them to move freely in Europe and North Africa.
The suspects maintained contact with other North Africans who are the subject of anti-terror investigations in European countries, the statement said.
AP correspondents Alessandra Rizzo in Rome and Veronika Oleksyn in Vienna contributed to this report.