April 5, 2007 / 9:48 AM / 12 years ago

U.S. officials question Islamists held in Ethiopia

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. officials have questioned suspected Islamist militants in Ethiopia in hopes of uncovering details about al Qaeda activities in East Africa, officials said on Wednesday.

An aerial view of the scene following the 1998 bomb blast outside the U.S. embassy in Nairobi. The 1998 attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania killed 224 people. REUTERS/George Mulala

A main focus of the questioning by CIA and FBI agents has been the 1998 attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and three al Qaeda suspects believed to be in the Horn of Africa.

Human rights advocates said scores of Islamists from 18 countries, including the United States, were captured in Kenya while fleeing war-torn Somalia earlier this year and had since become victims of a secret detention program that could erode international support for the U.S. war on terrorism.

U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said American officials were given access to about 150 suspects in Kenya. The Kenyan government later transferred more than 80 to Somalia, from which many were sent on to be held incommunicado in Ethiopia, the group said.

The rights group identified one of the captives as U.S. citizen Amir Mohamed Meshal and said several others were British.

A CIA spokesman declined to comment in detail but said U.S. actions were lawful and stressed none of the captives had been in U.S. custody or transferred across international boundaries with U.S. assistance.

A federal law enforcement official said the FBI had been given limited access in Kenya and Ethiopia to question fewer than 100 individuals in the past several months as part of its investigation of potential threats and of past terrorist attacks.

“They are people detained by foreign governments for possible violations of their law. We have been given the opportunity to talk to these people,” the law enforcement official said.

Rights advocates contend the United States has had a great deal of influence, saying Kenya appears to have followed the clandestine U.S. practice of detainee transfer known as rendition.

“We have very serious concerns that they should have the right to a court. If you don’t give them that, then you’re losing the war on terrorism,” said Omar Jamal of the U.S.-based Somalia Justice Advocacy Center.

“It is an open secret to every Somali individual that the U.S. government is heavily involved in this.”

‘USEFUL INFORMATION’

A U.S. official familiar with the CIA and FBI interviews in Kenya and Ethiopia said American agents have had limited access to captives “with knowledge of terrorist activities,” including the embassy bombings that killed 224 people.

“It’s been productive. We’ve received useful information,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

U.S. authorities have been searching for three main al Qaeda suspects — Abu Talha al-Sudani of Sudan, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed of Comoros and Kenyan Saleh Alie Saleh Nabhan — who were believed to be in Somalia before U.S. and Ethiopian forces began carrying out air strikes on Islamists in Somalia earlier this year.

All three are accused of playing a role in the embassy bombings, while Nabhan is also wanted in connection with a 2002 hotel bombing on the Kenyan coast that killed 15 people.

U.S. officials believe Sudani could have been killed earlier this year in an Ethiopian air strike but evidence to confirm the death has not been found.

Additional reporting by James Vicini in Washington

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