Moroccan security services have rounded up 56 people in recent weeks as it dismantled a network allegedly planning terror attacks on government and tourist sites, the interior ministry said on Friday.

Recent arrests have included soldiers, police officers and the wives of two of state airlines pilots, which led many analysts to believe that a shift in tactics by the government and a shift in Morocco's Islamist extremists, from the slums and into the middle classes.

Four of the suspects were women, including the wives of two pilots for the national airline, Royal Air Maroc, interior minister Chakib Benmoussa was quoted on the official MAP news agency as saying.

Government officials would not comment further on the women, and the airline could not be reached for comment on Friday, but named the group as Jammaat Ansar El Mehdi, or the Mehdi Support Group.

The recent spate of arrests was the latest offensive in an anti-terrorism campaign that began after September 11, 2001, and kicked into high gear following 2003 suicide bombings in Casablanca that killed 45 and stunned the mainly moderately Muslim nation.

Women's role

Mohammed Darif, a professor at the University of Mohammeia and a leading expert on Islamist terrorism, said the women's role was likely financing the alleged terror cell. He said it was unclear how or whether the group might have made use of their connection to Morocco's national carrier.

The women's alleged involvement was a sign that the appeal of Islamic extremism was broadening.

Extremists often are labelled poor illiterates, he said, adding that Sidi Moumen - the Casablanca slum where many of the 2003 bombers had grown up - "has become the symbol of terrorism".

Extremism may have crept from
the slums into the middle classes

"But we're only talking about those who carry out attacks. We're forgetting the other elements of terrorism, above all the level of planning," Darif said.

When the crackdown was first announced on August 7, police said that 44 people had been arrested, including five former soldiers with explosives expertise. The operation has been continuing, and has involved arrests in at least six cities.

"The members of this group were planning terrorist attacks targeting tourist sites, strategic government facilities and foreign holdings, and assassinations of prominent figures for political or moral reasons," Benmoussa said in a statement released by the interior ministry.

In the recent raids, police seized explosives, laboratory materials and propaganda leaflets, officials have said.

Holy war

The group's leader was a former convict who recruited Muslim radicals to train them in explosives use and planned to wage a holy war, the ministry has said.

The group allegedly also sought to finance its activities through robberies of financial institutions and bank trucks, officials said.

Officials have said the arrests highlight the need for continued police vigilance against terrorism, and Benmoussa urged Moroccans to support the government's anti-terrorism efforts.

Human rights groups allege that innocent people have been caught up in the sweep, and that many are tortured. The government denies most of the claims.