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Brazil arrests 'amateur' Olympics terrorism group
[BRASÍLIA] Brazilian police have arrested 10 members of an "amateur" would-be terrorist group that expressed loyalty to the Islamic State organization and was preparing attacks ahead of the Olympics, officials said Thursday.
The nationwide anti-terrorism swoop codenamed Operation Hashtag was the most heavily publicised security incident so far ahead of the Games, which start in Rio de Janeiro on August 5.
However, justice minister Alexandre de Moraes described the alleged group of Brazilian nationals as "an absolutely amateur cell" and "disorganised." He also said "there was no specific target."
The alleged plotters were arrested across 10 different states in the vast country and had been in contact via messaging services WhatsApp and Telegram. Most of them did not know each other previously and it was not clear if any had ever met in person.
Officials downplayed links to the Islamic State group which has claimed responsibility for a string of bloody recent assaults on civilians in France and elsewhere.
"Some of them made an oath of loyalty by Internet to the Islamic State, but there was no personal contact by this group with Islamic State by WhatsApp," Mr de Moraes told journalists in the capital Brasilia.
He insisted that the security situation ahead of the Games, the first held in South America, was unchanged.
"The risk remains the same. There is a minimal probability of a terrorist act during the Rio Olympics," the minister said at the hastily called press conference.
In a statement, the justice ministry said it began monitoring messages sent between the group, which called itself "Defenders of Sharia," in April. It said a non-governmental organisation working in humanitarian and educational areas was also being probed.
The most concrete act by the alleged group was an attempt to contact a black market weapons supplier in neighboring Paraguay to purchase a Kalashnikov assault rifle, Mr de Moraes said.
However, other preparations discussed appeared to illustrate what officials said was the group's amateur nature, with only two weeks to go until the Games begin.
"There was an order between them to start training in martial arts," Mr de Moraes said.
In a separate press conference, defense minister Raul Jungmann used an expletive to describe the "craziness" of the alleged group.
However, he said that they had "crossed the red line between expressing support for terrorism and these acts." The ministry said that about 130 officers took part in Operation Hashtag in which 10 people were arrested and two more were temporarily detained. Two other suspects remain at large.
The arrests and 19 searches were conducted in states ranging from the Amazonas region to the financial capital Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.
Last week, Brazil said it was bolstering security for the August 5-21 Olympics following the truck attack in the French city of Nice, which killed 84 people and left scores badly wounded. The attack has been claimed by the Islamic State group.
The Brazilian intelligence agency Abin last month picked up messages in Portuguese that it said were linked to the Islamic State group.
Brazil's Olympics security plan calls for the mobilisation, starting July 24, of some 85,000 members of the security forces.
These include 47,000 police officers and 38,000 military service members tasked with protecting the 10,500 athletes, and some 500,000 tourists expected to come from all parts of the world.