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People gather at an impromptu memorial where a van crashed into pedestrians at Las Ramblas in Barcelona, Spain. REUTERS/Albert Gea(reuters_tickers)
By Julien Toyer
MADRID (Reuters) - A Belgian policeman told a Catalan colleague in 2016 that an imam thought to have instigated last week's Barcelona attack was a suspicious person but no information was found then to tie him to Islamist militancy, a Catalan government source said.
Police in the northeast Spanish region of Catalonia are coming under growing criticism over the van attack that killed 13 people. Two others were killed during the van driver's getaway and in a separate attack further down the coast.
Some Spanish media accused Catalan police on Thursday of failing to properly investigate the Moroccan imam, Abdelbaki Es Satty. Meanwhile a wider blame game is being played out between central authorities in Madrid and officials in Catalonia, whose leaders are pushing for independence from Spain.
Spanish High Court Judge Fernando Andreu on Thursday released - on certain conditions including a ban on leaving Spain and handover of passport - another of the four suspects arrested over the attacks, Salh El Karib, a court order said.
El Karib ran an internet cafe in the Catalan town of Ripoll where most of the members of the Islamist cell, who were mostly young men of Moroccan descent, lived.
El Karib bought a plane ticket for Es Satty to fly on Oct. 15, 2017 and two tickets for another suspect, Driss Oukabir, to fly on Aug. 12 and 13, a few days before the attacks, the court order said. The flights were all with Air Arabia.
The order did not specify the destinations but Spanish press reports have said Oukabir, who rented the van used in the Barcelona attack, flew back to Spain from Morocco on Aug. 13. Air Arabia flies from Barcelona to a number of Moroccan cities.
Judge Andreu accepted El Karib's statement that he bought the tickets on behalf of Oukabir's 17-year-old brother, who did not have a credit card, and that he was reimbursed in cash.
Andreu on Tuesday ordered Driss Oukabir and Mohamed Houli Chemlal remanded on charges of murder and membership of a terrorist organisation, while another man was freed under the same conditions as El Karib.
The other eight known members of the group, including Es Satty and the younger Oukabir, were killed by police or died in an explosion in a house that appeared to be a bomb factory.
Andreu met high-ranking security officials on Wednesday to set out a common strategy for the investigation, a judicial source said.
The source said the meeting was a first step towards integrating the two Spanish police forces - the Civil Guard and the National Police - in the investigation, which had until now been managed by the Catalan police. The objective was to better coordinate various police forces in countering security threats.
The tip-off about Es Satty, the Muslim cleric, was made informally between two police officials from Belgium and Catalonia who knew each other, a source in Catalonia's regional government told Reuters.
"The communication between the two policemen was not official. They knew each other because they had met in a police seminar," the source said on condition of anonymity.
Catalan police records, however, had turned up nothing on Es Satty. "The documents show that we had no information about the imam," the source said, and the only official communication channels of the Catalan police, the Mossos d'Esquadra, with police in other nations were through Spain's central government.
The Catalan regional government and the Madrid central government declined to comment.
It remains unclear whether Catalan police made their own attempts to follow up the lead.
The top home affairs official in the Catalan regional government, Joaquim Forn, said on Thursday that Catalan authorities had been unaware of any investigation of the imam or that he could pose a threat, Spanish news agency EFE said.
Es Satty spent around three months in the Belgian town of Vilvoorde, a known centre of Islamist radicalism, between January and March last year.
He later went to Catalonia to be the imam of Ripoll, where he is suspected of having recruited and radicalised most of the group which carried out last week's attacks.
Vilvoorde Mayor Hans Bonte said last week Es Satty had been "intensely screened" by Belgian police at the request of the local Muslim community when he was looking for a job there, and he had told Spanish police by email of Es Satty's whereabouts.
El Pais newspaper quoted Bonte on Thursday as saying he had received a reply from police in Barcelona on March 8 last year. "They said the imam had no links to radical groups," he said.
Sources close to the investigation told Reuters earlier this week the regional Catalan force might have missed an opportunity to uncover the plot because of procedural errors and a lack of communication among investigators.
The errors and miscommunication centred around a major explosion on Aug. 16, the eve of the attack, at a house where it was later discovered that members of the Islamist group had been assembling bombs, the sources said. Catalan police say Es Satty, 44, and another man died in that blast.
Spain ordered Es Satty's expulsion from the country after he served a four-year jail term for drug trafficking but this was annulled by a court in 2015 after Es Satty appealed, court officials have said.
The judge at the time overturned the expulsion order partly because Es Satty had employment roots in Spain, which he said "shows his efforts to integrate in Spanish society".
There was no information before the court at the time to link Es Satty to Islamist militancy, the officials said.
Spanish Economy Minister Luis de Guindos said on Thursday he did not expect the attacks to have any significant short-term impact on tourism, which accounts for about 11 percent of the Spain's economy.
(Additional reporting by Jesus Aguado, Adrian Croft and Sarah White; Editing by Mark Heinrich)