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Philippines Authorities Clear Malaysian of al-Qaida Connections - 2002-02-11

Authorities in the Philippines say they have cleared a Malaysian man detained on suspicion of having links to the al-Qaida terrorist group. The man was arrested at the airport in Manila with more than 100 passports.

The Philippine Immigration Commission says it has cleared Malaysian travel agent Azmi Salleh of any links to international terrorism, but is deporting him for currency violations.

Mr. Azmi was arrested last Thursday at Manila's international airport, after he was discovered carrying more than 100 passports and more than $50,000 in cash. Authorities were suspicious that the passports might be false and destined for members of the al-Qaida network thought to be on the run after the fall of the Taleban in Afghanistan.

Authorities' suspicions were heightened when the man's portable telephone was found to contain the name of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

However, Immigration Commissioner Andrea Domingo Monday issued a statement saying Mr. Azmi was merely a travel agent trying to obtain visas for Malaysian clients who wished to travel to Saudi Arabia for the hajj, or annual pilgrimage to Mecca. Saudi Arabia limits visas for the pilgrimage to one percent of a country's population.

The statement added that Mr. Azmi said he was a sympathizer of Mr. bin Laden, but that he was not involved with al-Qaida. However, the statement said, Mr. Azmi had violated a Philippine law that limits the amount of currency an individual can carry out of the country to $10,000. As a result, he is to be deported.

Security at Philippine border points has been tightened in recent months, amid reports of links between al-Qaida and local Islamic militants.

Airport authorities last month arrested an Indonesian citizen, said to be a member of the Jemaah Islamiah group, who is suspected of planning bombing attacks against Western targets in the region. He led police to a cache of arms that included one ton of explosives.