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Iran says al-Qaida leaders may be in custody

Friday, May 30, 2003

TEHRAN, Iran -- In a reversal, Iran left open the possibility Thursday it may have top al-Qaida operatives in custody, including the terror network security chief suspected by U.S. officials of planning attacks in Saudi Arabia.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi's comments to The Associated Press contradicted his statement Monday, when he was quoted as telling state-run radio that al-Qaida members detained in Iran "are not senior members of the group."

Instead, he said Thursday, Iran is unsure of the identities of the al-Qaida members it has detained and Saif al-Adil may be among them.

"None of the al-Qaida members in our detention have been identified yet. We do not know whether leaders of the terrorist group, including Saif al-Adil, are in Iran or not," Asefi told The Associated Press.

His comments came as investigators worked to determine whether al-Qaida has been at work in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Morocco and even Iraq.

Also Thursday, an Arabic-language magazine quotes a senior member of al-Qaida as raising the possibility that the group might poison U.S. water supplies.

The Saudi-owned al-Majalla weekly also reports in its latest edition that al-Qaida militants are in the ranks of Saddam Hussein loyalists who are attacking U.S.-led forces in Iraq.

The reports are based on e-mail correspondence that Al-Majalla conducted with Abu Mohammed al-Ablaj, whom the magazine identified as a senior member of al-Qaida.

"It is something that would be have to be viewed seriously," said a U.S. counterterrorism official in Washington, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Of the suspected role of al-Qaida in the Morocco attacks, he said, "We still maintain that there are connections between the Casablanca commando and the international terrorist ring, and we will prove it."

In Saudi Arabia, Interior Minister Prince Nayef announced the arrest of three clerics wanted for supporting al-Qaida. He said the clerics -- Ali al-Khudair, Ahmad al-Khalidi and Nasser al-Fahd -- were among 11 suspects detained this week in the holy city of Medina.

U.S. officials have said intelligence reports suggest al-Qaida operatives in Iran had a role in the Riyadh bombings. Saudi Arabia has said it plans to seek the extradition of any Saudis who may be among al-Qaida members held in Iran.

Iran says it is trying to crack down on al-Qaida operatives -- especially along its border with Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden's terror network had a base before the U.S.-led war deposed the Taliban regime.

"For the past 14 months we have vigorously pursued a costly campaign against al-Qaida by strengthening security of our eastern borders and border areas, arresting, interrogating, expelling, extraditing, prosecuting and jailing suspicious elements infiltrating our territory," Iran's envoy to the United Nations, Javad Zarif, said in a CNN interview broadcast Thursday.

"We have done this in far greater numbers than most other countries," he said, speaking from Tehran.

In addition to al-Qaida security chief al-Adil, U.S. officials have said one of bin Laden's sons, Saad bin Laden; Abu Mohamed al-Masri, an al-Qaida training chief on the FBI's most-wanted list; and Abu Musab Zarqawi, the operational commander whom Washington accuses of ties to Saddam Hussein, may also be in Iran.

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