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Terrorists May Have Used Balkans as Staging Area - 2001-09-18

There is no direct evidence that accused terrorist leader Osama bin Laden has ever been in southeastern Europe, however security officials say there is little doubt that organizations associated with him have in the past had operations in the Balkans.

Albanian Prime Minister Ilir Meta says his government is solidly behind efforts to wipe out terrorism. Following the U.S. terrorist attacks, he has offered unconditional support to the United States. But in the past, people linked to Osama bin Laden have found sanctuary in Albania, with or without official approval.

Osama bin Laden has said he was not involved in terrorist attacks against the United States. American officials have named him as the prime suspect. He has been on Washington's most-wanted list for allegedly planning the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. He also has been linked to last year's bombing of an American warship in Yemen.

U.S. officials said in 1999 there was credible evidence that elements associated with Osama bin Laden were using Albania as a staging area. The United States expressed concern about lax security in the country and then Secretary of Defense William Cohen cancelled a visit to Tirana because of security concerns.

In June 1998, U.S. and Albanian security authorities conducted raids in Albania, and two suspected bin Laden associates were among the more than 100 people arrested. One of those, an Egyptian, was handed over to Egyptian authorities. U.S. officials confiscated computer equipment and documents. An Albanian security official was quoted then as saying the bin Laden organization had begun operating in Albania four years earlier, in 1994. Albania had collapsed into anarchy in 1997, and there was a change of government in the middle of that year.

Bosnia-Herzegovina is a second Balkan country with possible past links to Osama bin Laden and Islamic fundamentalists. Hundreds of Mujahadin fighters from the Middle East joined the Bosnian Muslim fight against the Serbs in the mid-1990s, and intelligence experts say many of them have stayed behind. Last July, Bosnian authorities arrested three men with alleged links to the bin Laden organization in a Sarajevo suburb. All three were Egyptians but two of them carried Bosnian passports.

In September 1999, Turkish police arrested a 30-year-old Algerian with a Bosnian passport. His name was on an Interpol list of wanted people associated with Osama bin Laden. The British based Institute for War and Peace Reporting says some of the extremist Muslim groups in Bosnia have maintained links with the bin Laden organizations.

Here in Macedonia, where NATO troops are taking weapons from ethnic Albanian insurgents and a shaky cease-fire prevails, the Macedonian media is asserting that there are links between the rebels and Osama bin Laden.

But NATO is vigorously denying these headline stories carried in Skopje newspapers. NATO spokesman, Mark Laity says there is no evidence of any link between the ethnic Albanian National Liberation Army and groups associated with Osama bin Laden.