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Bosnia Turns Over 6 Men With Suspected al-Qaida Links - 2002-01-18

Bosnia has turned over to U.S. military authorities six Arabs suspected of terrorist links. The move came a day after Bosnia's highest court ruled that they should be freed from detention because of a lack of evidence.

A U.S. military spokesman said the men have been transferred to a so-called "secure location" but refuses to give any further details on their whereabouts.

The six men were detained last October by Bosnian authorities on suspicion of involvement with terrorist organizations, including the al-Qaida group led by Osama bin-Laden.

At the time, the NATO-led Stabilization Force in Bosnia, which participated in the operation, said the men were under suspicion of hatching a plot to attack U.S. and British facilities in the Balkan country.

The U.S. military describes the six men as Algerian nationals, but five of them held Bosnian citizenship until last November, when it was revoked by the Bosnian government. The key suspect, Bensayah Belkacem, also held a Yemeni passport.

On Thursday, Bosnia's highest court ordered the release of the six men, citing lack of evidence to continue holding them in a Sarajevo jail.

That, said a top NATO official, rang alarm bells in Washington, which demanded that the Bosnian government turn the six men over to the U.S. military because it considers them to still pose a threat to U.S. interests. The official said that Mr. Belkacem, when arrested, had in the memory of his mobile phone the number of a key al-Qaida operative and had made dozens of calls to Afghanistan in September and October.

The official says the U.S. government refused to make those intercepts public in a Bosnian court because it would have jeopardized intelligence-gathering methods. So, he said, Bosnia's high court was faced with a situation where it could only rule that there was insufficient evidence to continue holding Mr. Belkacem and his fellow suspects.

As the Bosnian government wrestled with whether or not to meet the American demand to hand the six men over to the U.S. military, large crowds gathered in front of the jail to block their transfer. Many were friends and relatives of the detainees, but others were human rights advocates who accused the local authorities of violating Bosnian law in turning the six men over to the Americans. After a prolonged standoff, Sarajevo police finally dispersed the crowd early Friday morning.

A lawyer for the six Arabs says he was told they will be sent to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where more than 100 al-Qaida and Taleban prisoners captured in Afghanistan are already being held.

The NATO official said he presumes the men have already been taken to a U.S. base in Germany, from where they will, "probably" be flown to Guantanamo.