US hijackers 'fell ill with anthrax'

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Intriguing pointers to a link between the terrorist attacks on 11 September and last autumn's lethal anthrax letters in the US, have arisen with suggestions that two hijackers may have contracted the deadly disease themselves.

A doctor in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, last June treated Ahmed Alhaznawi for a dark lesion on his leg. Alhaznawi, who three months later was aboard United Airlines Flight 93 which crashed in Pennsylvania, said he injured himself bumping into a suitcase.

The doctor, Christos Tsonas, prescribed antibiotics and thought no more of it until contacted by FBI investigators after the attacks.

On reflection, Dr Tsonas says he now believes the most likely cause of the lesion was subcutaneous anthrax. This is the less serious non-inhaled form of the disease, and if detected in time can be easily treated with antibiotics.

Separately, a pharmacist in Delray Beach, Florida, later revealed that Mohammed Atta, considered the ringleader of the hijackers, came to see him during the summer asking for something to treat skin irritation on his hand.

The revelations, disclosed in yesterday's New York Times, add to the mystery of the letter writers, and are bound to revive initial speculation that the letters laced with anthrax spores – which led to the deaths of at least four people and created a nationwide panic – and the hijackings, were part of one conspiracy.

The letters, post-marked 18 September and 9 October, were written in the poor English a foreigner might use. Another pointer to the terrorists is the fact that several of those involved in the September attacks were interested in learning to fly small crop-duster planes – aircraft that could have been used to spread the disease.

Most tantalising of all, Atta and Alhaznawi both lived near Boca Raton, attending a flying school in the area. The city is home to the headquarters of America Media Inc, where the British born photographer Bob Stevens became the first recently to die of the disease.

Later, however, suspicions fell ona domestic source for the letters, perhaps a disaffected former scientist at a US military research laboratory.

The most deadly letters, to US news organisations in New York, and to the Washington office of Tom Daschle, the Senate majority leader, had New Jersey post-marks.

But despite a massive investigation, no one has been arrested. This has led to suggestions that the authorities were deliberately holding off, to avoid disclosures that would be deeply embarrassing to the US government.

The FBI is sceptical about an anthrax, hijack link. "This was fully investigated and exhaustive testing did not support anthrax being present anywhere the hijackers had been," an FBI spokesman said.

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