French arrest physicist suspected of al-Qaida link

GENEVA – A physicist working at the world's largest atom smasher has been arrested on suspicion of links to al-Qaida, adding to the woes of the $10 billion project that ceased operation a year ago — just days after its celebrated start up.

The scientist, arrested in France, is suspected of involvement with Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, a French official said Friday. The North African group regularly targets Algerian government forces and occasionally attacks foreigners.

The judicial official said the suspect was one of two brothers arrested Thursday in southeastern French city of Vienne, 33 kilometers 20 miles south of Lyon. The official spoke anonymously because the case is ongoing.

Police said the brothers, who were not identified, are Frenchmen aged 25 and 32. The arrest was part of a French judge's probe into suspected terrorist links.

The physicist, who was affiliated with an outside institute, has been assigned to analysis projects at the laboratory since 2003. He was one of more than 7,000 scientists working on the Large Hadron Collider, the world's largest atom smasher, said the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known as CERN.

The physicist had no contact with anything that could be used for terrorism, CERN said in a statement.

"None of our research has potential for military application, and all our results are published openly in the public domain," the statement said.

The suspect had not been seen at CERN for several months, according to spokesman James Gillies. That wasn't unusual because the collider wasn't working and there were no collisions to be examined.

The LHCb experiment where he worked is one of a series of research projects along the 17-mile 27-kilometer circular tunnel under the Swiss-French border.

"LHCb is an experiment set up to explore what happened after the Big Bang that allowed matter to survive and build the universe we inhabit today," the organization said on its Web site.

The Big Bang was a vast explosion that scientists theorize was the beginning of the universe 14 billion years ago.

The collider started spectacularly in September 2008 with beams of particles flying in both directions on the first day of trying. But nine days later, a massive electric failure related to a construction fault caused the entire machine to shut down.

It has been undergoing repairs almost ever since with the bill expected to total about 40 million Swiss francs $40 million over the course of several years.

While the arrest is expected to be no more than a public relations loss, it came as the organization was preparing to restart the machine in November for the first time in 14 months.

Spokeswoman Renilde Vanden Broeck said there was no indication of sabotage in the shutdown and that the arrested man would have had access only to the small experiment he was working on, and not to the tunnel itself.

The projects are aimed at making discoveries about the makeup of matter when the Large Hadron Collider starts collecting data later this year or early next year.

The European laboratory has been working for 15 years to build the collider.

Associated Press writers Bradley S. Klapper and Frank Jordans in Geneva, and Deborah Seward in Paris contributed to this report.