Blunkett questioned on disappearance of cleric

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The home Secretary is to be asked about the disappearance of a Muslim cleric, described as the "spiritual leader" of Islamic terrorists in Europe, after claims in Paris that he might have fled from his home in London with the help of British security services.

Andrew Dismore, a Labour MP, is writing to the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, to ask whether Abu Qatada was an informant for MI5 or Scotland Yard and whether Britain colluded in his disappearance.

Mr Qatada, a Jordanian religious scholar, left his home in Acton, west London, hours before new anti-terror legislation was passed, which could have led to his arrest. He has not been seen since.

French anti-terrorist officers are furious with British intelligence over his disappearance. He was identified by the Spanish authorities as the "spiritual leader" of Islamic terrorists in Europe. Last week senior anti-terrorist sources in Paris claimed that their British counterparts must have colluded in Mr Qatada's disappearance.

Mr Dismore said: "I will ask David Blunkett what is going on. I find it peculiar that he was not picked up and I will raise the comments of the security officials in France."

Mr Dismore said that when Mr Qatada had first gone missing the assumption was that he had been among eight people arrested in dawn raids on 19 December after the introduction of new government powers to fight terrorism. The MP for Hendon said: "I assumed he was near the top of the list of suspects."

French anti-terrorist officers told Le Figaro newspaper last week that British intelligence was refusing to give them information about a man they believed was one of four Islamic extremist suspects under a high level of surveillance after the attacks on America on 11 September.

One said: "He cannot have disappeared into the ether from under the noses of the English, it's impossible. It is most likely that he went on the run in Great Britain with the agreement of the British authorities."

Another French official said: "The British have not given us any information although they have stressed the importance of openness since 11 September." The French sources, who describe London as "Londonistan" because of its supposed status as a haven for Islamic extremists, suggest Mr Qatada might be an informant for MI5.

The French believe that by keeping the cleric in hiding, the security services may hope to pick up useful information as well as reduce the risk of revenge firebomb attacks on mosques or avoid dangerous extremism spreading in prisons if he was locked up.

Mr Qatada was named in an indictment prepared by the Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon, which has led to eight suspects in Madrid facing charges of being direct accomplices in the 11 September hijackings. The British-based cleric was said to be a key contact of the Madrid terror cell, which was known as Sons of Allah.

Mr Qatada, who does not speak English and whose following is drawn from the more extremist elements of London's North African and Middle-Eastern emigré communities, is banned from Regent's Park Mosque because of his radical views.

He is the subject of an extradition request from Jordan, which claims his group, the Army of Mohamed, planned to attack American and Jewish targets during the millennium celebrations. Mr Qatada, who rejects all suggestions that he is involved in terrorism, was given leave to remain in Britain in 1993 after arriving as an asylum-seeker on a false passport.

A police raid on his house uncovered £180,000 in different currencies, in spite of the fact that he had been claiming support from the state. Mr Qatada was stripped of his benefits after Mr Dismore complained to the Department of Work and Pensions.