The Bush administration has reiterated a warning to Iran not to offer safe haven to al-Qaida members. This follows a U.S. newspaper report denied by Iran that two key figures in the terrorist network are being sheltered in eastern Iran along with a number of other members of the group.
The comments here followed a Washington Post report that quoted Arab intelligence sources as saying that two senior al-Qaida figures are being sheltered along with "dozens" of other members of the group in two Iranian towns near the Afghan border.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said he would not discuss what information U.S. intelligence may have on the matter. But he endorsed a recent assertion by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that al-Qaida members are being sheltered by Iran, and said the practice should stop.
"What is clear to us from a policy point of view is, and as the president has made absolutely clear, that no nation should be offering any harbor or safe haven for terrorists and we would expect Iran not to offer any safe-haven," said Mr. Boucher.
The Washington Post identified the two senior al-Qaida members as Saif al-Adel, an Egyptian who is on the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) "most-wanted" list, and Mafouz Ould Walid, a Mauritanian also known as "Abu Hafs" whom U.S. officials had reported killed in Afghanistan in January.
Both are said to have assumed lead roles in the terror organization in recent months with Osama bin-Laden and other key members of the group in hiding or dead following the U.S.-led military drive against al-Qaida and the Taleban.
A U.S. official who spoke to VOA acknowledged there were "indications" that the Mauritanian, Abu Hafs, survived the military assault and may have fled into Iranian territory.
Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal said Iran had detained and expelled to Saudi Arabia 16 al-Qaida members, all of them Saudi nationals. Until then, Iran had insisted that there were no al-Qaida members on its soil.
An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, responding to Thursday's newspaper report, said the notion that al-Qaida members remained in Iran was "baseless" and that Iran's policy is not to give refuge to the group.