Paraguayan authorities say they suspect there may be some links to Middle East terrorism among members of the large Arab community living and working in the triple border area of Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina. Officials in the region are met in Uruguay Friday to draw up a joint plan for tighter security. Paraguayan authorities have detained some Arab immigrants with irregular identity documents.
Paraguayan Interior Minister Julio Cesar Fanego says Paraguayan police are sweeping the neighborhoods of the northern border city of Ciudad del Este searching for possible suspects involved with Middle East terrorist groups.
Ciudad del Este a teeming city that has long been a smugglers' haven sits on the border between Paraguay and Brazil, and is home to many businesses owned by Arab immigrants. Most of these immigrants live across the Parana River, in the Brazilian city of Foz de Iguacu and come to Ciudad del Este to work each day.
Interior Minister Fanego says most of the Arab immigrants who live and work on the triple border area are legitimate businessmen. But he tells VOA there may be some who have ties with terrorists. "We don't have any evidence yet," he says, "but we do suspect that these ties exist. This is why we have stepped up our vigilance in the area."
Since the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, Paraguayan police have rounded up dozens of Arab immigrants. Some remain detained because they had false or irregular documents. For now, no one has been officially accused of having links to any terrorist groups.
Yet, the U.S. ambassador to Paraguay, David Greenlee, says concerns remain. "For a long time we've been concerned that in that area, and people going back and forth from that area to the Middle East, that there are connections with groups in the Middle East," the ambassador says. "We've tended to see those connections as connections that involve sympathy by people and perhaps some financial support."
Mr. Greenlee added that the extent of this financial support is unclear, but may be going to groups like Hezbollah. He said there are no indications of direct support for Osama bin Laden's terrorist organization.
Some 25,000 Arab immigrants, most of whom come from Lebanon, live in the triple border area. Many settled in the region over the last 20 years, fleeing fighting and unrest in their home countries.
Suspicion over possible terrorist links within this community surfaced in the wake of two bombings in the early 1990s in Argentina one against the Israeli embassy, and the other against an Argentine-Israeli mutual assistance group. More than 100 people were killed in these attacks. Argentine authorities at the time suggested that members of the Arab immigrant community in the border region might have helped those who planned and organized these bombings.
Since the devastating attacks in the United States, there is renewed attention and suspicion to the dismay of Arabs living and working in the region. Lebanese businessman Mohamad Tiba, who runs a business in Ciudad del Este, says U.S. and authorities from other countries are wrong to suspect the Arab community. "We don't agree with them, they should come and see, you know," Mr. Tiba says. "We've been to America and all over the United States, everybody from here gets a U.S. visa and goes to Miami and New York. We have no problem with the United States people, or with its government."
Mr. Tiba and others feel they are being unfairly singled out, and are concerned about possible growing pressure.
For now, it appears scrutiny and vigilance in the triple border area will be increased. The Justice and Interior Ministers of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay opened a meeting in the Uruguayan capital Friday to discuss joint security measures. Among the measures under consideration are strengthening immigration controls and improving the exchange of intelligence information.