Evidence of link to terrorism exists against few of foreigners put in jail

Only 10 to 15 of 1,200 suspected of showing support for al-Qaida

War On Terrorism


Osama Elfar was dozing on a hard bench under the ever-present drone of the prison television set when a guard's voice crackled over the intercom, "Happy birthday." Otherwise, Nov. 9 would have passed without Elfar's even noticing that he had turned 30.

"When you're here, you don't know day from night, Thursday from Friday - it's all the same," Elfar said in a telephone interview from the Mississippi County Correctional Facility in Charleston, Mo. "A new decade started for me. Unfortunately, I was locked up."

An Egyptian who came to the United States five years ago to attend a Florida flight school, Elfar recently worked as a mechanic for a small airline in St. Louis. He has been in jail for two months and began a hunger strike Friday to protest his incarceration.

Elfar is among hundreds of foreigners swept up in a dragnet after the terrorist attacks who have been put in prison for immigration violations that before Sept. 11 would probably have been ignored or resolved with paperwork.

Government officials say that the aggressive response is warranted by the extraordinary situation.

Overall, more than 1,200 people have been detained as part of the sweeping investigation. But a senior law enforcement official said for the first time last week that just 10 to 15 of the detainees are suspected to be al-Qaida sympathizers and that the government has yet to find evidence indicating that any of them had knowledge of the attacks or acted as accomplices.

While most members of this small group are being held in New York on material witness warrants, 500 others are in federal custody on immigration charges for such violations as overstaying their visas or lying on documents.

A handful are believed to have known some of the hijackers.

Others seem to have drawn suspicion for coincidental reasons. An Egyptian antiques dealer, Hadyi Hassan Omar, made plane reservations on a Kinko's computer about the same time and at the same place a hijacker did; he spent two months in jail before being released Friday.

Many have cooperated with the FBI, admitted that they violated their visa agreements and agreed to leave the country. But they remain in jail.

Elfar said he was expecting FBI questions because he had entered the country to study at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., as did one of the hijackers. Agents picked him up Sept. 24 at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, where he had been fixing planes for Trans States Airlines for several years.

A month ago, Elfar, who is from Alexandria, Egypt, was granted a "voluntary departure," which means he must leave the country but would not be blocked from returning. He was supposed to fly out by Friday; instead, he is in jail.

"A lot of things that were on my mind I do not believe in anymore," he said. "Like the fair trial, the free speech."

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