One of 17 suspects in an alleged Canadian terror plot intended to behead Stephen Harper, the prime minister, and to bomb various buildings, the detainee’s lawyer said on Tuesday.

Fifteen of the men, including five teenagers, appeared briefly at a heavily guarded courtroom in a Toronto suburb on Tuesday. The two others are serving sentences in Kingston, east of Toronto, for smuggling arms into Canada from the US.

The men were arrested on Friday in Canada’s biggest counter-terrorism operation. Police have said more arrests are possible.

All the detainees are Canadian residents and Muslims; several attended the same mosque. The arrests have intensified debate over Canada’s immigration and multiculturalism policies. Muslims make up about 2 per cent of the population but, until now, the Muslim community has not been subject to the same public backlash as in the US or parts of Europe.

A columnist in The Globe and Mail wrote on Tuesday that “our tolerant and welcoming immigration policy represents Canada’s great competitive advantage over most of the rest of the world. To listen to the screeds of those who will exploit these arrests to argue for shutting our doors would be to hand over our single most important public policy success to fools and bigots.”

Others have called on the Muslim community to challenge extremists in its ranks more forcefully.

But a lawyer for one of the suspects, referring to the huge armed police presence at yesterday’s court hearing, said that “whether you’re in Ottawa or Toronto or Crawford, Texas, or Washington, DC, what is wanting to be instilled in the public is fear, and that’s unfortunate”.

Canadian authorities are especially concerned about a potential backlash in the US against Ottawa’s relatively liberal immigration and asylum laws. A major lobbying effort has been under way for several months to persuade the Bush administration to delay implementation of a law that will require all travellers crossing into the US to hold passports.

Canadians and Americans presently require only a picture identity document. The new rules are due to take effect in January for air travellers and a year later for road traffic.

The police have said the men took delivery of three tonnes of ammonium nitrate, a fertiliser that can be used to make a crude bomb.

Gary Batasar, a lawyer for one of the detainees, said yesterday that an eight-page synopsis of charges against his client included “the storming and bombing of various buildings”, as well as plans to behead Stephen Harper, the prime minister.*

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