Terrorism suspects to be sent to U.S.

3 in Hong Kong accused of drugs-for-missiles plot

January 07, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

HONG KONG - Three men arrested three months ago and accused of plotting to trade drugs for antiaircraft missiles agreed yesterday to be extradited to the United States after initially fighting extradition.

The two Pakistanis and American have been indicted in San Diego on charges of planning to trade heroin and hashish for four Stinger surface-to-air missiles. Law-enforcement officials said the men told FBI undercover agents here Sept. 20 that they had intended to resell the Stingers to al-Qaida and were promptly arrested by Hong Kong police officers working with the FBI.

The case drew international attention when the United States unsealed its indictment against the men Nov. 6 because the Stinger is a highly effective weapon against low-flying aircraft, and there had been widespread concern that al-Qaida might try to shoot down civilian airliners.

Terrorists in Mombasa, Kenya, fired two shoulder-launched missiles at an Israeli passenger jet Nov. 28, missing both times, before detonating a bomb at a hotel that killed three Israeli tourists and 10 Kenyans, along with the bombers. American investigators have since said those missiles were SA-7s, a model designed in the Soviet Union in the 1970s and widely manufactured in the former Soviet bloc since then.

The missile launcher in Mombasa had a production number very close to the number of a missile launcher found after an unsuccessful attack against an American warplane in Saudi Arabia in 2001. American officials have said the similarity in production numbers did not prove that al-Qaida was responsible for both attacks but that it suggested a possible link between them.

The extradition of the three men will be the first by this semi-autonomous Chinese territory in a case involving allegations of terrorism; Hong Kong is not known to be a base for any terrorist groups. A Hong Kong official said last night that it would take three or four weeks to complete paperwork, including a formal approval by Tung Chee-hwa, the territory's chief executive, before the three men could be flown under escort to the United States.

In an appearance yesterday before the Eastern Magistracy Court here, the American, Ilyas Ali, and the Pakistanis, Syed Mustajab Shah and Muhammad Abid Afridi, did not say why they had dropped their opposition to extradition, nor did their lawyer, Jonathan Acton-Bond, provide a reason. Acton-Bond did not return calls to his office.

But if the men had stood trial in Hong Kong, they would have done so before a judge, not a jury. Officials in Hong Kong, which Britain turned over to China in 1997 but which retains a British colonial legal system, have gone out of their way to say they have no tolerance for terrorism.

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