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Qaida hunt in pressured Iran

Tehran, May 26 (Reuters): Iran, under pressure from Washington to join the US-led war on terrorism, said today it had arrested several suspected members of Osama bin Laden’s al Qaida but was unsure of their rank in the network.

US officials say they have intelligence suggesting senior al Qaida members hiding in Iran had prior knowledge of the May 12 suicide bombings in Saudi Arabia in which 34 people, including eight Americans, were killed.

Leading US lawmakers predicted yesterday there would shortly be positive developments regarding al Qaida in Iran.

Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said Iran currently had several al Qaida suspects in custody “but we don’t know who these people are to be able to say whether they are senior or not”.

“They need to be identified and interrogated,” the official IRNA news agency quoted Asefi as saying, without giving details on their arrest.

State radio had earlier reported that Asefi had said the al Qaida suspects currently under arrest in Iran were not senior members of the network, accused by the US of masterminding the September 11, 2001 attacks on US cities.

Government officials could not be reached for further comment.

Iran, branded by Washington as being part of an “axis of evil” along with Iraq and North Korea, says it has deported around 500 al Qaida members in the last year after they slipped over its borders from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.

Foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi said in a French newspaper interview today that Iran had done its best to expel al Qaida operatives and had no interest in supporting the network.

“There is no reason for us to help this organisation,” Kharrazi told Le Figaro.

“Our borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan are so long that some al Qaida members have sought refuge in Iran. We have arrested many of them and extradited them to their country of origin.”

Iran’s ambassador to the UN, Javad Zarif, said yesterday Iran was trying to identify a group of al Qaida suspects in custody and was willing to hand them over to “friendly governments”, such as Saudi Arabia.

The US, which broke diplomatic ties with Tehran shortly after the 1979 Islamic revolution, has grown more critical of Iran since the end of the Iraq war last month.

US officials have accused Iran of pursuing a secret nuclear weapons programme, meddling in post-war Iraq and harbouring al Qaida.

Iran denies all the charges and insists it has long been ideologically opposed to al Qaida.

The Washington Post reported yesterday that the White House was due to consider tomorrow a Pentagon-backed proposal to destabilise Iran’s clerical government through a popular uprising.

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