Spy mystery at Guantanamo Bay as Syria denies link to accused US air force worker

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Syria has flatly denied having links with the US Air Force translator at the Guantanamo Bay terrorist detention camp, who has been charged with trying to hand secret information about the base to the Damascus government.

In the first public comment of the case, Ahmad al-Hassan, the Syrian Information Minister, called the reports "baseless and illogical" yesterday, adding: "Would the CIA fail to find a translator it trusts and had previously trained for a job of such a level of secrecy?"

Court papers claim 24-year-old Senior Airman Ahmad al-Halabi tried to pass to Damascus material including hundreds of notes from prisoners, a map of the base in Cuba and details of its air traffic, plus intelligence documents.

The Syrian-born SA Halabi has been charged on more than 30 counts, including four of espionage and three of aiding the enemy. The documents do not make clear to whom, if anyone, the sensitive information was specifically addressed, or whether it reached its destination. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.

When he was arrested on July 23, SA Halabi was carrying two handwritten notes from prisoners. The court documents claim he was planning to give them to a person travelling to Syria. His laptop computer also contained 180 messages from some of the 660 al-Qa'ida and Taliban suspects held at Guantanamo Bay. These too he was allegedly intending to send to Syria or to the Gulf state of Qatar.

The court papers submitted by the US military authorities also claim SA Halabi took photographs of the camp, had unauthorised contacts with prisoners - including giving them baklava pastries - and had unauthorised contacts with the Syrian embassy. He is also accused of lying to the Air Force by claiming to have been naturalised a US citizen in 2001.

But all talk of espionage is rejected by SA Halabi's relatives. They agreed he visited the Syrian embassy in Washington, but simply to arrange visits to his native country to move his Syrian-born fiancée to the US. Otherwise, he has no contacts with the government of President Bashar Assad, and has applied for US citizenship, they say.

Whatever the outcome, the case, days after the disclosure of the arrest of a Muslim chaplain at the camp, has shaken the US authorities. It has called into question the security of a remote and supposedly super-safe facility at the heart of President George Bush's "war on terrorism". The episode has raised fears that al-Qa'ida, far from being on the run in the US, may have penetrated the military that is pursuing it.

Almost certainly SA Halabi and the chaplain, US Army Captain James Yee, knew each other. The charges also suggest SA Halabi did not report unauthorised communications between detainees and other military personnel at Guantanamo Bay, raising the possibility of a wider ring. At least two other people are being investigated, CNN reported yesterday.

Whatever the outcome, the affair will cast a further cloud over ties between America and Syria. Although the two countries maintain diplomatic relations, Washington has long accused Syria of being a sponsor of terrorism, in particular of radical groups operating against Israel. America also says Damascus operates secret chemical and biological weapons programmes. Tensions reached a peak immediately after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein when Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary, even hinted at military action against Syria.

He suggested Damascus had offered sanctuary to prominent members of the former Iraqi regime, and accused the Assad government of allowing terrorists and weapons across its borders to aid the resistance opposing the American invasion force.