Barcelona cell planned big bomb attack, suspect tells court

MADRID, Aug 22 (Reuters) - An alleged member of an Islamist cell suspected of carrying out last week's deadly Barcelona van attack told a Spanish court on Tuesday that the group had been planning a much bigger strike using explosives, a judicial source said.

The testimony to a closed hearing at Spain's High Court came from Mohamed Houli Chemlal, one of four detained suspects brought to Madrid to testify for the first time in court about the plot.

Two of the suspects told the court that Abdelbaki Es Satty, the imam in the small town in northeastern Spain where many of the group came from, was the instigator, the source said, adding that the public prosecutor had asked the judge to send all four to jail while investigations continued.

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Van crashes into crowd in Barcelona
People react as they leave a cordoned off area after a van ploughed into the crowd, killing two persons and injuring several others on the Rambla in Barcelona on August 17, 2017. A driver deliberately rammed a van into a crowd on Barcelona's most popular street on August 17, 2017 killing at least two people before fleeing to a nearby bar, police said. Officers in Spain's second-largest city said the ramming on Las Ramblas was a 'terrorist attack' and a police source said one suspect had left the scene and was 'holed up in a bar'. The police source said they were hunting for a total of two suspects. / AFP PHOTO / Josep LAGO (Photo credit should read JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images)
Policemen walk on the Rambla after a van ploughed into the crowd, killing two persons and injuring several others on the Rambla in Barcelona on August 17, 2017. A driver deliberately rammed a van into a crowd on Barcelona's most popular street on August 17, 2017 killing at least two people before fleeing to a nearby bar, police said. Officers in Spain's second-largest city said the ramming on Las Ramblas was a 'terrorist attack' and a police source said one suspect had left the scene and was 'holed up in a bar'. The police source said they were hunting for a total of two suspects. / AFP PHOTO / Josep LAGO (Photo credit should read JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images)
Policemen and medical staff members stand in the entrance of a mall after a van ploughed into the crowd, killing two persons and injuring several others on the Rambla in Barcelona on August 17, 2017. A driver deliberately rammed a van into a crowd on Barcelona's most popular street on August 17, 2017 killing at least two people before fleeing to a nearby bar, police said. Officers in Spain's second-largest city said the ramming on Las Ramblas was a 'terrorist attack' and a police source said one suspect had left the scene and was 'holed up in a bar'. The police source said they were hunting for a total of two suspects. / AFP PHOTO / LLUIS GENE (Photo credit should read LLUIS GENE/AFP/Getty Images)
An elderly woman accompanied by young people reacts after a van ploughed into the crowd, killing two persons and injuring several others on the Rambla in Barcelona on August 17, 2017. A driver deliberately rammed a van into a crowd on Barcelona's most popular street on August 17, 2017 killing at least two people before fleeing to a nearby bar, police said. Officers in Spain's second-largest city said the ramming on Las Ramblas was a 'terrorist attack' and a police source said one suspect had left the scene and was 'holed up in a bar'. The police source said they were hunting for a total of two suspects. / AFP PHOTO / Josep LAGO (Photo credit should read JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman gestures as she is escorted out by Spanish policemen outside a cordoned off area after a van ploughed into the crowd, killing 13 persons and injuring over 80 on the Rambla in Barcelona on August 17, 2017. A driver deliberately rammed a van into a crowd on Barcelona's most popular street on August 17, 2017 killing at least 13 people before fleeing to a nearby bar, police said. Officers in Spain's second-largest city said the ramming on Las Ramblas was a 'terrorist attack'. / AFP PHOTO / PAU BARRENA (Photo credit should read PAU BARRENA/AFP/Getty Images)
Spanish policemen accompany people leaving the cordoned off area after a van ploughed into the crowd, killing 13 persons and injuring over 50 on the Rambla in Barcelona on August 17, 2017. A driver deliberately rammed a van into a crowd on Barcelona's most popular street on August 17, 2017 killing at least 13 people before fleeing to a nearby bar, police said. Officers in Spain's second-largest city said the ramming on Las Ramblas was a 'terrorist attack' and a police source said one suspect had left the scene and was 'holed up in a bar'. The police source said they were hunting for a total of two suspects. / AFP PHOTO / LLUIS GENE (Photo credit should read LLUIS GENE/AFP/Getty Images)
BARCELONA, SPAIN - AUGUST 17: Paramedics are seen near to the scene of a terrorist attack in the Las Ramblas area on August 17, 2017 in Barcelona, Spain. Officials say 13 people are confirmed dead and at least 50 injured after a van plowed into people in the Las Ramblas area of the city this afternoon. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
BARCELONA, SPAIN - AUGUST 17: Police officers take security measures at the area after a van plowed into the crowd, injuring several people in Barcelona, Spain on August 17, 2017. (Photo by Albert Llop/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
A woman cries as she and a man are escorted by Spanish policemen outside a cordoned off area after a van ploughed into the crowd, killing 13 persons and injuring over 80 on the Rambla in Barcelona on August 17, 2017. A driver deliberately rammed a van into a crowd on Barcelona's most popular street on August 17, 2017 killing at least 13 people before fleeing to a nearby bar, police said. Officers in Spain's second-largest city said the ramming on Las Ramblas was a 'terrorist attack'. / AFP PHOTO / PAU BARRENA (Photo credit should read PAU BARRENA/AFP/Getty Images)
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUALS COVERAGE OF SCENES OF DEATH AND INJURY: People attend to injured persons at the scene after a van crashed into pedestrians near the Las Ramblas avenue in central Barcelona, Spain August 17, 2017. REUTERS/Giselle Loots SPAIN OUT. MANDATORY CREDIT.
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUALS COVERAGE OF SCENES OF DEATH AND INJURY: People attend to injured persons at the scene after a van crashed into pedestrians near the Las Ramblas avenue in central Barcelona, Spain August 17, 2017. REUTERS/Giselle Loots SPAIN OUT. MANDATORY CREDIT. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUALS COVERAGE OF SCENES OF DEATH AND INJURY: A dead person is seen at the scene after a van crashed into pedestrians near the Las Ramblas avenue in central Barcelona, Spain August 17, 2017. REUTERS/Giselle Loots MANDATORY CREDIT. SPAIN OUT.
Two young girls run to leave a cordoned off area after a van ploughed into the crowd, killing two persons and injuring several others on the Rambla in Barcelona on August 17, 2017. A driver deliberately rammed a van into a crowd on Barcelona's most popular street on August 17, 2017 killing at least two people before fleeing to a nearby bar, police said. Officers in Spain's second-largest city said the ramming on Las Ramblas was a 'terrorist attack' and a police source said one suspect had left the scene and was 'holed up in a bar'. The police source said they were hunting for a total of two suspects. / AFP PHOTO / LLUIS GENE (Photo credit should read LLUIS GENE/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman cries as she phones after a van ploughed into the crowd, killing one person and injuring several others on the Rambla in Barcelona on August 17, 2017. Police in Barcelona said they were dealing with a 'terrorist attack' after a vehicle ploughed into a crowd of pedestrians on the city's famous Las Ramblas boulevard on August 17, 2017. Police were clearing the area after the incident, which has left a number of people injured. / AFP PHOTO / Pau Barrena (Photo credit should read PAU BARRENA/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - People leave a cordoned off area after a van ploughed into the crowd, killing one person and injuring several others on the Rambla in Barcelona on August 17, 2017. Police in Barcelona said they were dealing with a 'terrorist attack' after a vehicle ploughed into a crowd of pedestrians on the city's famous Las Ramblas boulevard on August 17, 2017. Police were clearing the area after the incident, which has left a number of people injured. / AFP PHOTO / Pau Barrena (Photo credit should read PAU BARRENA/AFP/Getty Images)
A still image from video shows a police officer gesturing while walking across a road, after a van crashed into people in the centre of Barcelona, Spain, August 17, 2017. REUTERS TV via REUTERS
A still image from video shows a police officer ushering people away on a street, after a van crashed into people in the centre of Barcelona, Spain, August 17, 2017. REUTERS TV via REUTERS
A still image from video shows a police cordon on a street in Barcelona, Spain following a van crash August 17, 2017. REUTERS TV via REUTERS
Abandoned air balloons of a street vendor tied to a chair fly at the empty Plaza de Catalunya after a van ploughed into the crowd, injuring several persons on the Rambla in Barcelona on August 17, 2017. Police in Barcelona said they were dealing with a 'terrorist attack' after a vehicle ploughed into a crowd of pedestrians on the city's famous Las Ramblas boulevard on August 17, 2017. Police were clearing the area after the incident, which has left a number of people injured. / AFP PHOTO / Josep LAGO (Photo credit should read JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images)
BARCELONA, SPAIN - AUGUST 17: People move away from the area after a van plowed into the crowd, injuring several people in Barcelona, Spain on August 17, 2017. (Photo by Albert Llop/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
A person is stretched out of a mall by medical staff members in a cordoned off area after a van ploughed into the crowd, injuring several persons on the Rambla in Barcelona on August 17, 2017. Police in Barcelona said they were dealing with a 'terrorist attack' after a vehicle ploughed into a crowd of pedestrians on the city's famous Las Ramblas boulevard on August 17, 2017. Police were clearing the area after the incident, which has left a number of people injured. / AFP PHOTO / Josep LAGO (Photo credit should read JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images)
Policemen stand next to vehicles in a cordoned off area after a van ploughed into the crowd, injuring several persons on the Rambla in Barcelona on August 17, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Josep LAGO (Photo credit should read JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images)
A policemen stand as he blocks the street to a cordoned off area after a van ploughed into the crowd, injuring several persons on the Rambla in Barcelona on August 17, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / PAU BARRENA (Photo credit should read PAU BARRENA/AFP/Getty Images)
Firefighters stands outside an evacuated mall after a van ploughed into the crowd, injuring several persons on the Rambla in Barcelona on August 17, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Josep LAGO (Photo credit should read JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images)
Medical staff members and policemen stand in a cordoned off area after a van ploughed into the crowd, injuring several persons on the Rambla in Barcelona on August 17, 2017. Police in Barcelona said they were dealing with a 'terrorist attack' after a vehicle ploughed into a crowd of pedestrians on the city's famous Las Ramblas boulevard on August 17, 2017. Police were clearing the area after the incident, which has left a number of people injured. / AFP PHOTO / Josep LAGO (Photo credit should read JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images)
A policeman stands next to an ambulance after a van ploughed into the crowd, injuring several persons on the Rambla in Barcelona on August 17, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Josep LAGO (Photo credit should read JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images)
Plain-clothes policemen phone as they walk past police cars in a cordoned off area after a van ploughed into the crowd, injuring several persons on the Rambla in Barcelona on August 17, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Josep LAGO (Photo credit should read JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images)
A policemen and a medical staff member stand past police cars and an ambulance in a cordoned off area after a van ploughed into the crowd, injuring several persons on the Rambla in Barcelona on August 17, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Josep LAGO (Photo credit should read JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images)
A person is stretched out of a mall by medical staff members in a cordoned off area after a van ploughed into the crowd, injuring several persons on the Rambla in Barcelona on August 17, 2017. Police in Barcelona said they were dealing with a 'terrorist attack' after a vehicle ploughed into a crowd of pedestrians on the city's famous Las Ramblas boulevard on August 17, 2017. Police were clearing the area after the incident, which has left a number of people injured. / AFP PHOTO / Josep LAGO (Photo credit should read JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images)
Armed policecen stand in a cordoned off area after a van ploughed into the crowd, injuring several persons on the Rambla in Barcelona on August 17, 2017. Police in Barcelona said they were dealing with a 'terrorist attack' after a vehicle ploughed into a crowd of pedestrians on the city's famous Las Ramblas boulevard on August 17, 2017. Police were clearing the area after the incident, which has left a number of people injured. / AFP PHOTO / Josep LAGO (Photo credit should read JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images)
An armed policeman stands behind a tree in a cordoned off area after a van ploughed into the crowd, injuring several persons on the Rambla in Barcelona on August 17, 2017. Police in Barcelona said they were dealing with a 'terrorist attack' after a vehicle ploughed into a crowd of pedestrians on the city's famous Las Ramblas boulevard on August 17, 2017. Police were clearing the area after the incident, which has left a number of people injured. / AFP PHOTO / Josep LAGO (Photo credit should read JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images)
Armed policemen arrive in a cordoned off area after a van ploughed into the crowd, injuring several persons on the Rambla in Barcelona on August 17, 2017. Police in Barcelona said they were dealing with a 'terrorist attack' after a vehicle ploughed into a crowd of pedestrians on the city's famous Las Ramblas boulevard on August 17, 2017. Police were clearing the area after the incident, which has left a number of people injured. / AFP PHOTO / Josep LAGO (Photo credit should read JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images)
BARCELONA, SPAIN - AUGUST 17: A police stands as he blocks the traffic after a van plowed into the crowd, injuring several people in Barcelona, Spain on August 17, 2017. (Photo by Albert Llop/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Pigeons gather on the empty Plaza de Catalunya after a van ploughed into the crowd, injuring several persons on the Rambla in Barcelona on August 17, 2017. Police in Barcelona said they were dealing with a 'terrorist attack' after a vehicle ploughed into a crowd of pedestrians on the city's famous Las Ramblas boulevard on August 17, 2017. Police were clearing the area after the incident, which has left a number of people injured. / AFP PHOTO / Josep LAGO (Photo credit should read JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images)
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El Mundo newspaper said Chemlal told the court that the group planned to attack architect Antoni Gaudi's landmark Sagrada Familia church and other Barcelona monuments but this could not be immediately confirmed.

Chemlal was arrested after being hurt in a blast at a house in Alcanar, southwest of Barcelona, a day before Thursday's van attack on the crowded Las Ramblas boulevard in Barcelona, which left a trail of 13 dead and 120 injured people from 34 countries.

The 21-year-old arrived at court wearing hospital-issue pajamas, with a bandaged hand and cuts to his face and bare ankles.

Police found 120 butane gas canisters and traces of a home-made explosive in the rubble of the house at Alcanar, where they say two of the plotters were killed. They believe that the accidental explosion led the group to abandon plans for a bomb attack and to stage a vehicle assault instead.

Tuesday's court hearing was the first in a long legal process, and it could be months or even years before the case is brought to a full trial.

The four are the only alleged members of the group still alive after the driver of the van that plowed through the crowd in Barcelona, 22-year-old Younes Abouyaaqoub, was shot and killed by police on Monday.

RESORT ATTACK

In little more than a year, Islamist militants have used vehicles as weapons to kill nearly 130 people in France, Germany, Britain, Sweden and now Spain.

Islamic State claimed responsibility for the latest attack and a separate deadly assault, hours later, in the coastal resort of Cambrils, south of Barcelona.

In Cambrils, a car rammed passers-by and its occupants got out and tried to stab people. The five assailants, who were wearing what turned out to be fake explosive belts, were shot dead by police, while a Spanish woman died in the attack.

Most of the 12 suspects lived in the town of Ripoll, set in forested hills beneath the Pyrenees north of Barcelona, and most were young men of Moroccan descent.

The four suspects in court on Tuesday were questioned one-by-one by the investigating judge, Fernando Andreu.

Driss Oukabir, 28, whose passport was found in the abandoned van after the Barcelona attack, has maintained his innocence. He told the court that he rented vans used in the attack but believed they were for a house move, according to Europa Press news agency.

Also in court were Mohammed Aalla, 27, owner of the Audi car used in the Cambrils attack, and Salah el Karib, 34, who ran an internet cafe in Ripoll that, according to La Vanguardia newspaper, was used to send money to Morocco.

No charges against the men have yet been specified.

Es Satty, the Ripoll imam who police suspect radicalized the young men, is believed to have died in the Alcanar explosion.

An investigation into whether the cell had international links goes on, police have said.

La Vanguardia said Moroccan authorities had arrested a man who had been in touch with Moussa Oukabir, one of the suspects killed by police in Cambrils, and may have played a role in connecting the Catalan cell with Islamic State.

French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb on Tuesday confirmed press reports that the Audi used in the Cambrils attack had been caught on camera speeding in the Paris region days before the Catalonia attacks.

But he told BFM TV that French authorities had been unaware of the existence of the Catalan cell, saying they were "exclusively Spanish."

BFM TV later reported that it had been Abouyaaqoub and an accomplice who traveled to the Paris region the weekend of Aug. 12-13, staying overnight at a hotel.

Spanish police have sought information from Belgian authorities on a visit the imam, Es Satty, made there last year.

(Additional reporting by Julien Toyer, Inmaculada Sanz and Carla Raffin and Richard Lough in Paris; Editing by Julien Toyer and Mark Trevelyan)

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