MADRID - Police arrested 14 suspected Islamic militants in early morning raids yesterday, amid fears the men were plotting a terrorist attack in Barcelona, the interior minister said.
The suspects, 12 Pakistanis and two Indian nationals, were arrested less than two months before national elections in Spain.
The country's last vote in March 2004 was held just after the Madrid train bombings - the worst Islamic-linked terror attack in Europe.
There are fears that Islamic militants could try a similar plot to disrupt this year's vote, scheduled for March 9.
Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba gave no details on what sort of an attack allegedly was being plotted, but said authorities found four timers and other explosives-related material in some of the suspects' homes.
"When someone has timers at home, you have no option but to think violent acts are being planned," he said, adding that more arrests were expected and the country was on high security alert.
The minister said the arrests - many that reportedly took place in Barcelona's Raval neighborhood - were prompted by information from several unspecified European intelligence agencies. Raval is home to one of Spain's largest concentrations of Pakistani immigrants.
Civil Guard officers made the arrests as part of raids planned with the National Intelligence Center, the Spanish equivalent of the CIA, Rubalcaba said. Five homes were searched overnight, he said, and Spanish newspapers reported that a mosque and an unauthorized prayer center also had been targeted.
Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero confirmed the arrests and said investigations were continuing.
Europe's worst Islamic-linked terror attack took place in Spain on March 11, 2004, when bombs went off in railway cars during the morning rush hour near Madrid's Atocha station. The attack killed 191 people and injured more than 1,800. Twenty-one people have been convicted of involvement in that attack.
The Madrid train attacks were claimed by Muslim militants who said they had acted on behalf of Al Qaeda to avenge the presence of Spanish troops in Iraq, but Spain's courts found no evidence that Al Qaeda ordered, knew about, or financed the attacks.
Three days after the carnage, Spaniards ousted the conservative party of José María Aznar, a staunch Washington ally who had backed the US-led war in Iraq. His successor, Zapatero, fulfilled an electoral pledge and brought the troops home shortly after taking power.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, Spanish police have arrested hundreds of Islamic terrorism suspects, many in connection with the Madrid attack.
In recent years police also have focused on cells suspected of recruiting mujahideen fighters and suicide bombers, or of collecting money to finance Al Qaeda-linked groups abroad.
With Spain scheduled to hold a general election March 9, police are on the alert for terrorist attacks by Islamist groups or the Basque militant group ETA.
The Interior Ministry officials have said they now consider the Islamic militant threat greater than that of the Basque separatists, and they have increased surveillance of mosques in recent years.
Last May, police in Barcelona broke up a group they said was recruiting fighters and funding militant organizations in North Africa and Iraq. Thirteen Moroccans and two Algerians were arrested in that case.
Earlier this month, Spanish authorities arrested two alleged members of ETA, who allegedly admitted that they carried out a 2006 bomb attack in Madrid that halted peace talks with the group.