Iran says it holds al-Qaida members, but won't give names

Tuesday, June 24, 2003

TEHRAN, Iran -- Iran said Monday it has identified some al-Qaida members it has in custody and promised to hand them over to their home nations, including Saudi Arabia.

The United States has been increasing pressure on Iran, accusing it of harboring operatives for Osama bin Laden's terror network -- including some Washington says may have been involved in last month's suicide bombings in the Saudi capital, Riyadh. Saudi Arabia has been pressing for the handover of any al-Qaida agents.

Iran has denied giving sanctuary to any al-Qaida figures and has been saying for weeks that it had some members of the group in custody -- but it was trying to determine who they were.

Monday's statement was Iran's firmest yet on al-Qaida, though it did not reveal the names of the identified members or how many are in its prisons.

"We have identified some of the al-Qaida members in our custody," government spokesman Abdollah Ramezanzadeh told reporters.

Asked if those identified included al-Qaida spokesman Suleiman Abu Ghaith or security chief Saif al-Adil, the spokesman said: "Their names cannot be given for security reasons."

Iran will deport the alleged members of the terror group if it determines they are from "friendly" countries, while those accused of crimes in Iran will be prosecuted, Ramezanzadeh said.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud visited Tehran last week to discuss the extradition of any Saudis among the detained al-Qaida members.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi told reporters Monday that if some detainees are Saudis, "we will spare no effort to hand them over to our Saudi friends."

Ramezanzadeh said Iranian courts will decide what to do with al-Qaida members "who are nationals of countries with whom we don't have security cooperation." And any who committed crimes in Iran "will be prosecuted in Iran," he said.

U.S. officials have not said which al-Qaida figures they believe are in Iran.

Washington stepped up pressure on Iran's hard-line Islamic leaders over alleged support of terrorist groups after suicide bombers struck housing compounds for Westerners in Riyadh on May 12. At the same time, the Bush administration has increased its accusations that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons, a charge Tehran denies.

The United States has also condemned the Iranian leadership's crackdown on anti-government protests last week, angering Iranian officials who complained of U.S. interference.

Earlier this year, Iran said it had extradited more than 500 al-Qaida members to their countries of origin -- including Arab, European and African countries. Many al-Qaida operatives are believed to have fled to Iran after the overthrow of the Taliban regime in neighboring Afghanistan in late 2001.

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