Officers from various law enforcement agencies including the Royal Canadian...

Officers from various law enforcement agencies including the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Peel Regional Police, and Surete du Quebec gather at a news conference in Toronto as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police announce the arrest of two men accused of plotting a terror attack on a rail target. (April 22, 2013) Credit: AP

Canadian police arrested two men and thwarted a plot to blow up a major commuter rail line between Toronto and the United States that runs trains into and out of New York City, officials said Monday.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police said the plan, which was backed by al-Qaida "elements" in Iran, didn't pose an imminent danger to the public.

The plot, which was in the development stages, involved attacking a passenger train on the VIA system, the Canadian equivalent of the Amtrak national rail network in the United States, police said during a Toronto news conference.

Canadian officials released few details of the plot, but other law enforcement officials who didn't want to be identified said it involved explosives to bring down a rail bridge used by U.S.-bound trains on the Canadian side of the border. They stressed that the case had no connection to the Boston Marathon bombings.

"This is the first known al-Qaida planned attack that we've experienced in Canada," RCMP Superintendent Doug Best said in the news conference. Officials said the FBI collaborated with the RCMP in the months-long investigation.

Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), chairman of the House Homeland Security subcommittee on counterintelligence and terrorism, said the goal of the conspiracy was to "cause a significant loss of human life, including New Yorkers."

The suspects were identified as Chiheb Esseghaier, 30, of Montreal, and Raed Jaser, 35, of Toronto, said RCMP Assistant Commissioner James Malizia. He didn't provide further information about the men or their countries of origin. Esseghaier and Jaser are scheduled to appear in court Tuesday in Toronto.

Malizia said that the pair had direction and guidance from members of al-Qaida in Iran.

A spokeswoman for the University of Sherbrooke said Esseghaier studied at the university's suburban Montreal campus in 2008-09.

More recently, he has been doing doctoral research at the Université du Québec's Institut national de la recherche scientifique, a spokeswoman at the training university confirmed.

RCMP officials said the case, dubbed "Operation Smooth," began in August 2012 when investigators learned that a plot might be in the making. Through the investigation, the RCMP believed that the suspects "had the capacity and intent" to carry out the attack, Malizia said.

Officials in New York said NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly and his counterterrorism unit were kept apprised early in the probe, indicating its potential to impact the city.

Amtrak said in a statement that the agency "is aware of the ongoing investigation and will continue to work with Canadian authorities to assist in their efforts."

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Amtrak and NYPD officials had been concerned about al-Qaida and other groups possibly targeting the Northeast Rail Corridor. Since 2005, the NYPD and Amtrak officials have held periodic meetings to assess security for the rail system, the latest on April 10, NYPD spokesman Paul Browne said.

With Alfonso Castillo and AP

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