May 22, 2015 / 5:04 PM / 3 years ago

Accused arms smuggler left Tunisia for Italy before museum attack: official

TUNIS/MILAN (Reuters) - A Moroccan man supplied arms for a March attack on Tunisia’s Bardo Museum and then boarded a migrant boat for Italy, where he is now held, a Tunisian government official said on Friday.

Moroccan citizen Touil Abdelmajid (R) makes a victory sign as he arrives with migrants on the Italian navy ship Orione at Porto Empedocle harbour in Sicily February 17, 2015. REUTERS/Antonio Parrinello

Tunisian authorities have not yet formally notified Italian prosecutors, who arrested 22-year-old Abdelmajid Touil on an international warrant earlier this week, what he was suspected of doing or when. Touil denies any involvement in the attack by Islamist militants.

That left Italian investigators in the dark about the supposed timeline of the Moroccan’s involvement in the March assault, and local media questioned whether Touil could have participated if he was in Italy at the time.

“Touil entered Tunisia by plane from Morocco on Feb. 2 before escaping stealthily to Libya” where he boarded a migrant boat to Italy, a senior official in the Interior Ministry told Reuters.

The Italian navy rescued Touil from the migrant boat in February, news that has fueled fears that Islamic militants could be among the thousands crossing the Mediterranean by boat to Europe. He was fingerprinted when he landed on Feb. 17.

“We are sure that he was involved in the attack on Bardo,” the official said. “All of the group arrested in the case confirmed that he was involved in the attack, and he got arms for the attackers from Libya.”

Tunisian authorities say the attack was carried out by a cell of about two dozen militants with overlapping allegiances to a number of hardline Islamist groups.

During a two-hour meeting with a Milan judge in prison on Friday, Touil said he had been erroneously arrested.

“He said he was innocent and he defined his arrest as an error,” Silvia Fiorentino, Touil’s lawyer, told reporters after her client met appeals court judge Pietro Caccialanza for a formal reading of the charges.

Tunisia has asked for Touil’s extradition to face trial, Interior Ministry spokesman Mohammed Ali Aroui told Reuters.

During Friday’s hearing, Touil said he opposed being extradited.

Since four Italians were among those murdered in the museum attack, Touil would first need to stand trial in Rome before being extradited, judicial sources added.

Also, according to Italian law, extradition would not be granted if Tunisia seeks the death penalty, they said.

Writing by Steve Scherer; editing by Ralph Boulton

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