Danish cartoonist attacker suspected of al Qaeda ties

COPENHAGEN Sun Jan 3, 2010 2:02am EST

1 of 2. Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard poses in Aarhus in this September 2006 file photo.

Credit: Reuters/Preben Hupfeld/Scanpix

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COPENHAGEN (Reuters) - A Somali man armed with an axe and suspected of links with al Qaeda broke into the home of a Danish cartoonist whose drawings of the Prophet Mohammad caused global Muslim outrage and was shot and wounded by police.

Hours later, the 28-year-old was stretchered into court on Saturday and denied charges of trying to kill Kurt Westergaard.

The Somali also denied trying to murder a police officer at Westergaard's home in the town of Aarhus late on Friday after he broke into the house armed with a knife and an axe, police said.

Danish police intelligence said they believed the "attempted assassination ... is terror related" and accused the man, who was not named, of having links with Somalia's al-Shabaab militant group as well as al Qaeda militants.

The cartoonist, 74, pushed a panic button, fled to a safe room and was unhurt when police arrived. His grand-daughter was in the house during the attack. Police could not confirm reports he had tried to break down the safe room door with the axe.

Westergaard, who in 2005 depicted Prophet Mohammad with a bomb in his turban, has been under police protection since his caricatures of the Prophet led to death threats.

The Somali man appeared in court on a stretcher with a hand and leg in plaster casts due to gunshot wounds from a police officer who had narrowly dodged the axe thrown at him by the intruder who was trying to evade arrest, police said.

The accused did not speak in court, but denied the charges through his lawyer.

The Security and Intelligence Service PET, a department of the national police, said in a statement: "It is PET's impression that the attempted assassination of the cartoonist Kurt Westergaard is terror related."

The man, the PET said, "has close relations to the Somali terror organization al-Shabaab and al Qaeda leaders in East Africa, and he is also suspected of having been involved in terror-related activities during his stay in East Africa."

It also accused him of involvement in a terror-related network with links to Denmark, where he has a residence permit.

POLICE INVESTIGATION

"For some time this network has been the subject of PET's investigation without, however, this having any relation to the cartoonist Kurt Westergaard," the PET said.

Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen said that the incident was not only an attack on Westergaard "but also an attack on our open society and democracy."

The court in Aarhus remanded the man in custody for four weeks to allow further investigation before a trial, East Jutland police inspector Ole Madsen said.

"At the moment he is charged with two murder attempts," Madsen told Reuters, adding that the next court hearing was set for January 27. The police can then ask for permission to hold the man longer or can proceed to a trial.

Police were also planning to hear testimony from Westergaard's five-year-old granddaughter. "She stayed in the living room the whole time," Madsen said.

The PET said the security measures taken to protect him had proved effective and added: "This specific case emphasizes the importance of supplementing PET's continuous surveillance and investigation against terror-related networks with efficient security measures in relation to potential terror targets."

Last year, U.S. authorities arrested two men in Chicago who were suspected of planning attacks on Westergaard and his newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which published the caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad.

Most Muslims consider any depiction of the founder of Islam as offensive, and when other newspapers reprinted the caricatures in 2006 it triggered violence in several countries.

Three Danish embassies were attacked and at least 50 people were killed in rioting in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Several young Muslims have since been convicted in Denmark of planning bomb attacks, partly in protest at the cartoons.

In 2008, al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden said Europe would be punished for the cartoons. Denmark's Muslim community makes up about 3 percent of the 5.5 million population.

(Editing by Peter Millership)

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