By Gilles Castonguay
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Belgium opened the trial on Thursday of 23 suspected al Qaeda collaborators, including a professional footballer who has confessed to knowing Osama bin Laden (news - web sites) and plotting to attack a Belgian air force base.
Other accused in Europe's latest high-profile trial of suspected Islamic militants face charges linking them to the killing of an Afghan commander days before the September 11 attacks on the United States in 2001.
Belgian authorities were taking no chances as the trial started at a tightly guarded Brussels court house a day after al Qaeda called for more attacks on the West. Bullet proof glass shielded key suspects who were each handcuffed to a guard.
One key suspect is Tunisian-born footballer Nizar ben Abdelaziz Trabelsi who said in a radio interview last year that he knew and admired bin laden, al Qaeda's Saudi-born leader and the prime suspect in the September 11 attacks.
"He has known bin Laden in certain circumstances that he will explain to the court," Abbes Mehdi, one of Trabelsi's three lawyers, told reporters.
In the interview aired on RTBF radio, Trabelsi, 32, also confessed to planning a bomb attack on the Kleine Brogel air force base, which anti-nuclear activists say houses U.S. nuclear weapons.
Trabelsi was arrested in Brussels with explosives and firearms two days after the September 11 attacks. Another lawyer, Didier de Quevy, said he was seeking a lighter sentence for Trabelsi because he had confessed to the charges.
The suspects face up to 10 years in prison if found guilty on charges ranging from fraud and possession of firearms to belonging to a criminal organisation and recruiting for a foreign armed force.
Most are suspected members of a little-known Muslim group with ties to al Qaeda, also accused of the bombings which killed more than 70 people in Morocco and Saudi Arabia in the past week.
Two suspects, Algerian-born Amor ben Mohamed Sliti and Tarek ben Habib Maaroufi of Tunisia, are charged with trafficking in false passports and other crimes connected with the murder of Ahmad Shah Masood, an Afghan commander who fought the ousted Taliban regime.
Two stolen Belgian passports were found on the bodies of Masood's killers.
The trial, expected to last one month, coincides with a high security alert in the United States and Europe over fears of more al Qaeda attacks. On Wednesday bin Laden's top lieutenant urged Muslims to strike at Western targets.
Many European countries began cracking down on Muslim militant groups after September 11 with the Netherlands and Germany bringing suspects to trial.