Zambia agrees to hand over to Britain man said to be in al-Qaida

Suspect also thought to have links to bombers who struck London

August 04, 2005|By Sebastian Rotella and Jeffrey Fleishman | Sebastian Rotella and Jeffrey Fleishman,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LONDON - Zambia will deport to Britain an accused al-Qaida operative suspected of having links to the bombers who struck London last month and attempting to start a militant training camp in the United States, officials said yesterday.

Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa said at a news conference in the capital, Lusaka, that after discussions with British and U.S. officials, his nation had agreed to hand over to British authorities Haroon Rashid Aswat. Zambian authorities said that Aswat, 30, a British citizen of Indian descent, is believed to have entered the African country July 6, one day before bombs exploded on three London subways and one bus killed 56, including the four bombers.

Zambia captured Aswat on July 20, and counterterrorism agents questioned him in custody there, U.S. and British officials said. The agents held three-way discussions with Zambian authorities about where he might best be prosecuted, officials say.

Although the British government sought to have him sent here, British officials continued to be cautious about the possibility of Aswat's involvement in the July 7 attacks. Investigators detected that as many as 20 phone calls were made between at least one of the bombers and a cell phone associated with Aswat, officials say.

But it remains unclear whether Aswat was using the phone at the time and whether the calls were related to the bomb plot, according to U.S. and British officials. In any case, British investigators want to interrogate Aswat here about allegations of his involvement in other militant activity, a British official said yesterday.

"It seems that Zambia will send him here," said the British official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Not because he's thought to be some kind of mastermind of the London bombings, as some newspapers have suggested. We are being very cautious about such allegations. He is wanted for questioning in regard to al-Qaida terrorism."

The British official said he did not think there had been serious tensions with Washington about where Aswat should be sent.

"I guess it's more straightforward to have him sent here because he is a British citizen," the official said.

Aswat is a well-traveled figure who has been under U.S. and British scrutiny for several years. He has been living in South Africa and traveling extensively in Africa at a time when Western counterterrorism agents are increasingly concerned about the rise of Islamic extremism on the continent.

South African intelligence agents had Aswat under surveillance in the months before his arrest at the request of American and British counterparts, officials said yesterday.

U.S. federal agents are investigating him in connection with the prosecution of Abu Hamza al Masri, a radical Islamic cleric in Britain, and others in a plot to set up a training camp near Bly, Ore., about six years ago. Aswat is alleged to have traveled to the United States to meet with prospective jihadis and prepare a rural site for training them, although the project was abandoned, according to U.S. investigators.

During visits to the United States in 1999 and 2000, Aswat is alleged to have described himself as Osama bin Laden's "hit man," according to court records.

In other developments yesterday, British police filed their first charges in connection with the two attack plots. Ismael Abdurahman, 23, a resident of South London, will go to court today to face charges that he withheld information that could have helped police catch suspects, authorities said.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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