Karachi, Sept. 15 (Reuters): US officials led the interrogation of key al Qaida suspect Ramzi Binalshibh today, as Pakistan pondered likely extradition requests from the US or Germany.
Pakistani officials said they were prepared to send Binalshibh and his associates abroad for trial, but said no decision had yet been reached on where they should go.
“It has been decided to hand over the arrested al Qaida militants, but no decision has been taken as to which country they will be handed over to,” an interior ministry official said.
Binalshibh, wanted in the US and Germany for his alleged role in planning the hijacked plane attacks on the US, is one of the most important al Qaida members to be taken into custody over the past year.
Officials say he was a very prominent member of an al Qaida cell in the German city of Hamburg and a roommate of Mohamed Atta — the suspected ringleader of the September 11 hijackers.
US officials have said the Yemeni national, who was refused a visa into the US at least four times before September 11, 2001, wanted to join the 19 hijackers involved in the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Both American and German governments have already expressed interest in taking Binalshibh into custody.
“We certainly want custody of him,” the US President’s National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told Fox News. “We will work with the Pakistani officials.”
“We certainly want to be able to find out what he knows,” Rice added.
The German prosecutor’s spokesman said her government had not yet filed an extradition request with Pakistan and was still examining the situation before deciding on the next move. But interior minister Otto Schily has made it clear they would like to try Binalshibh.
“We in Germany have issued an international arrest warrant that we want to enforce,” Schily told ARD Television in Copenhagen yesterday.
“If there are competing interests, we must come to an agreement with other countries,” Schily added.
But Schily said late tonight that Berlin would not pursue the extradition of Binalshibh and would bow to Washington’s wishes to try him.
Schily told ARD that since Germany was not directly affected by the alleged crimes of the accused it would not seek his extradition. “The extradition attempt of the US has precedence,” he said.
Schily and other European interior ministers met US attorney general John Ashcroft in Copenhagen on Saturday to discuss US concerns that the lack of extradition agreements with a number of EU states, who object to its use of the death penalty, could prevent it bringing suspects to trial.
Germany, which has played a central role in the investigation into the September 11 attacks as three of the suicide hijackers had lived in the country, has refused to release evidence against another suspect unless Washington gives assurances it will not be used to impose the death penalty.
German investigators reportedly have evidence linking September 11 suspect Zacarias Moussaoui to Mohammed Atta.
Four of the six conspiracy charges Moussaoui faces in a US court carry a possible death sentence, a punishment banned in European Union states, including Germany.
Binalshibh, a second high-level al Qaida suspect, and 10 others are now being held in a secret, high-security location in Pakistan.
“They are being interrogated to retrieve maximum possible information about other al Qaida suspects in Pakistan,” an army source, who asked not to be identified, said.
The source said the arrested men were being kept blindfolded and handcuffed during questioning, with the two leading suspects held separately from their colleagues.
“Most of the time, it’s FBI officials who are interrogating them,” he added.
Yesterday, President George W. Bush had hailed the capture and vowed to hunt down other suspects still at large.
“Thanks to the efforts of our folks and people in Pakistan, we captured one of the planners and organisers of the September 11 attack that murdered thousands of people...,” Bush told reporters at Camp David.