Bomb disposal experts at work in the Brussels’ neighbourhood of Woluwe St Pierre on Saturday after Belgian police intercepted three suspects with a home-made explosive. Image Credit: Reuters

Paris: A Belgian husband and wife of Iranian origin have been charged with plotting to bomb a rally held last week in France by an exiled Iranian opposition group, the Belgian authorities said.

Earlier, an Iranian diplomat was also arrested along with the couple over the plot to bomb a gathering on Saturday of the Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) — an umbrella bloc of opposition groups in exile that seek an end to the current regime in Iran.

The conference was attended by US President Donald Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani, along with several former European and Arab ministers.

The suspects, identified only as Amir S., 38, and Nasimeh N., 33, were arrested from their Mercedes on Saturday in Sint-Pieters-Woluwe, a borough of Brussels, according to a statement by Belgium’s Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office and its Federal Intelligence and Security Agency. The suspects were intercepted by Belgian police with 500 grams of TATP, a home-made explosive produced from easily available chemicals, as well as a detonation device found in their car. The couple were charged with attempted terrorist murder and preparation of a terrorist act. Police added that they had raided five houses in and around the Belgian cities of Brussels, Antwerp, Mons and Leuze-en-Hainaut in connection with the case, but that they could not disclose the results of the searches. “The provisional state of the investigation shows that there was at no time a direct threat to Belgium,” the statement said, noting that the arrests had been made possible by cooperation between the Belgian, French and German authorities.

The 46-year-old Iranian diplomat working at the Austrian Embassy in Vienna was also arrested in Germany as a contact for the couple, and was identified as Assadollah A.

The NCRI is dominated by the group Mujahideen Khalq or the People’s Mujahideen Organisation of Iran, better known by its acronym MEK, which blamed the Iranian government for the plot. “The clerical regime’s terrorists in Belgium, with the assistance of the regime’s diplomats, had plotted this attack,” said Shahin Gobadi, a spokesman for the group.

Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif countered on Twitter that Iran “unequivocally condemns all violence & terror anywhere, and is ready to work with all concerned to uncover what is a sinister false flag ploy”.

About 25,000 people attended the rally, called “Free Iran 2018 — The Alternative,” at a convention centre in Villepinte, a northeastern suburb of Paris and a three-hour drive from Brussels.

The MEK, made up mostly of Iranian exiles living in the United States or in Europe, was founded in Iran as a dissident group that targeted the regime of the shah and then the religious clerics who overthrew him with terrorist attacks in the 1970s. Several prominent American figures have touted it as a viable alternative to the current Iranian leadership, including close allies of Trump, like John R. Bolton, his national security adviser. Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, and Newt Gingrich, a former House speaker, both spoke at the rally, with Gingrich calling it “impressive and emotionally powerful” on Twitter.

The developments came on the day Iranian President Hassan Rouhani arrived in Switzerland on a visit that Tehran said was of “crucial importance” for cooperation between the Islamic Republic and Europe after the US withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear agreement.

On Wednesday, Rouhani is due to visit Austria, which currently holds the six-month presidency of the European Union and is holding the detained Iranian diplomat.

Ahead of his visit, Austria asked Iran to lift immunity of the detained diplomat. Vienna delivered the request to “lift the immunity of the Iranian diplomat” to Iran’s ambassador to Austria, who was summoned to the foreign ministry after news of the alleged plot emerged, a ministry spokesman said.

Three people of Iranian origin were arrested in France to assess their link to the Brussels’ suspects, a French judicial source said. Two were released due to a lack of evidence against them while the third was held for questioning, the source said.

Following the arrests, Belgian authorities also conducted five raids in different parts of the country but did not elaborate on whether anything was found. Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel on Twitter thanked police and intelligence officers for their work. “Once more the good cooperation between countries has borne fruit,” Michel wrote.

— With inputs from Reuters & AFP