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Anthrax Probe Figure Linked with Zimbabwe Outbreak - 2002-08-05

A former U.S. Army bio-defense researcher who is a key figure in the investigation into last year's deadly anthrax attacks has connections to southern Africa, where another outbreak of the disease killed nearly 200 people in the late 1970s.

American scientist Steven Hatfill has gained attention in the U.S. government's investigation into the anthrax mailings last year that killed five people. He is what officials term a person of interest, not a suspect.

One of the factors that has apparently intrigued investigators is that Mr. Hatfill graduated from the Godfrey Huggins School of Medicine in Zimbabwe in 1983.

That was just a few years after the world's largest outbreak of human anthrax in what was then known as Southern Rhodesia. Between 1978 and 1980, nearly 200 people died and more than 10,000 cases were recorded. Researchers characterize the outbreak as suspicious and some believe it may have been the result of deliberate action by white Rhodesian security forces in the waning days of what was a long and brutal war with black liberation fighters.

Mr. Hatfill is reported to have begun his medical studies in the southern African country while the guerrilla war was under way in 1978, the same year he left the U.S. Army.

According to Pentagon officials, he had entered the Army three years earlier, receiving training as a radio operator but also taking qualifying courses for both Airborne and Special Forces units. He was on active duty from June 26, 1975, to July 2, 1976. After a gap of several months, he then served in the Army Reserve and Army National Guard from January 7, 1977, to October 1, 1978.

Some published news reports suggest he had connections with elite Rhodesian military units beginning in 1978. Those ties could not be independently confirmed.

However, one detail that has further attracted the attention of investigators to Mr. Hatfill is that there is a suburb of the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, known as Greendale.

Some of the anthrax letters involved in last year's U.S. attacks included a fictitious return address of the "Greendale School."

Mr. Hatfill is one of several scientists with backgrounds in biochemistry who have been examined by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. However, he is believed to be the only one who has undergone a lie detector test and whose residence has been searched twice.

Mr. Hatfill in recent years worked at the Pentagon's top bio-defense research center outside Washington. He has also worked for the Army's Medical Institute of Infectious Diseases and a private defense contractor, SAIC, or Scientific Applications International Corporation. His Zimbabwe medical school alumni listing gives an e-mail address for Mr. Hatfill at that corporation.

In July he began work at Louisiana State University's National Center for Biomedical Research and Training. But he has been temporarily suspended by his employer. Mr. Hatfill's attorney has blamed the action on the investigation.