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Suspected al-Qaida Captured at Sea Formally Detained - 2002-07-19

U.S. officials have formally detained two suspected al-Qaida members seized at sea in an intercept carried out by allied naval forces. It might be the discovery of an al-Qaida maritime escape route.

A senior Pentagon official says U.S. military authorities in Afghanistan have decided to detain two men seized by the Canadian Navy in a maritime intercept operation several days ago.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, says the two are of possible intelligence value and may have ties to al-Qaida. He gives no further details about their identities but confirms they are being held at the U.S. detention facility at Bagram Air Base outside Kabul, the Afghan capital.

Two other men were also seized this week by a French naval vessel in a separate maritime intercept operation. Pentagon officials say they may also be formally detained as al-Qaida suspects but no decision has yet been announced.

Details of the French and Canadian intercepts remain sketchy but both involved one or more speed boats owned by the same individual. The senior Pentagon official who spoke to VOA will not identify the owner but indicates he may be someone known for his smuggling activities.

The official says it is unclear if the speed boat or boats were launched from Iran or Pakistan. But he says they were stopped in the general area of the Gulf of Oman and the North Arabian Sea.

Since late last year, scores of coalition warships have been scouring that area, on the lookout for al-Qaida fighters who U.S. officials say were known to be trying to flee Afghanistan by boat.

The allied flotilla had contacted by radio and questioned nearly 16-thousand vessels and boarded nearly 200. But until now, no one has been taken into custody in any of the interdiction operations.

The sudden spate of shipboard seizures suggests coalition forces may have stumbled upon an al-Qaida escape route.

One senior defense official scoffs at that notion. But another says it is too early to make a judgment one way or the other.