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Man Holding Hundreds of Passports Detained in Philippines - 2002-02-08

Philippine authorities have detained a Malaysian national holding hundreds of passports - allegedly for the use of members of the al-Qaida terrorist network. Police say the Malaysian is a member of the radical Jemaah Islamiah group - believed to be the Southeast Asian link to al-Qaida.

Immigration and police authorities in Manila are investigating a Malaysian for suspected ties with an extremist group active in Southeast Asia. Azmi bin Salleh was about to board a Kuwaiti Airlines flight to Bangkok Thursday night when detained by Philippine police.

Mr. Azmi carried about a hundred Malaysian passports and more than $50,000 in cash. Police suspect the passports are intended for use by al-Qaida members who have fled from the U.S. led anti-terrorism campaign in Afghanistan. Authorities also found a cell phone containing references to Osama bin Laden - the head of the al-Qaida network.

General Melchor Ele, chief of the aviation security group, told ABS news in Manila that the Malaysian could also be a member of the Jemaah Islamiah.

"We are trying to look into the possibility that this guy is acting as a logistics and finance officer," he said.

But Mr. Azmi says he is only a travel agent. "I'm here for visa to Saudi Arabia. Mecca. Haj. Muslim," he said.

Malaysia's ambassador to the Philippines, Taufik Mohamed Noor, says the initial investigation shows Mr. Azmi is a travel agent helping Malaysian Muslims get visas for their annual pilgrimage to Mecca. He adds that Mr. Azmi has still violated Malaysian laws for securing pilgrimage visas from the Philippines as a way to skirt quotas on the number of pilgrims imposed by Saudi authorities in Malaysia.

Jemaah Islamiah is a seven-year-old organization aiming to create an Islamic state in Southeast Asia. It has only recently gained international publicity for its alleged links to al-Qaida.

Authorities in Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines have been cooperating in investigating the group. Dozens of suspected members of the Jemaah Islamiah have been detained - some for planning to bomb U.S. targets in Singapore.

In another development, police say an Indonesian arrested in southern Philippines last month for possession of a ton of explosives has confessed he is a member of the Jemaah Islamiah and financed a series of bombings in Manila in December 2000.