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Cleric charged with conspiracy to bomb Trade Center: Muslim leader 'plotted to attack targets' in United States

THE controversial Muslim cleric Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman has been charged in the United States with co-ordinating a conspiracy which led to the attack on the World Trade Center in New York, and also plotting to attack other important targets including the United Nations headquarters.

The outspoken and radical leader, who is in federal custody in the US, where he has been trying to negotiate the terms of his deportation, was also accused alongside three others with conspiring to murder the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak.

The blind 55-year-old sheikh, who has a considerable Islamic following - especially among more extreme elements - has repeatedly denounced the attack on the World Trade Center in February, in which six people died. But a federal indictment unsealed in a New York court last night says he was 'consulted in pursuing and planning bombings, murders and other acts of terrorism', including the Trade Center attack. Fourteen others are also charged with participating in the alleged conspiracies.

The indictment says the sheikh 'provided instruction regarding whether particular acts of terrorism were permissible or forbidden, served as a mediator of disputes among members of the organisation and undertook to protect the organisation from infiltration by law enforcement authorities'. It said there were also plans to attack unspecified US military targets. The sheikh and his co-defendants are scheduled to be arraigned today.

Western analysts have maintained that Mr Abdel-Rahman, while not a mainstream Islamic leader, commands a fundamentalist following which is similar to that of the late Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran. He has been living in self-imposed exile in the United States since he was acquitted a decade ago in Egypt on charges that he sanctioned the assassination of the then Egyptian President, Anwar Sadat, in 1981.

The new indictment accused the 15 men of being embroiled in a conspiracy that included the World Trade Center bombing. It also links them to a plot to bomb other sites in the New York area which was foiled when it was uncovered by the authorities in June. The targets allegedly included the United Nations, the Lincoln and Holland tunnels connecting New York City and New Jersey, and a building housing FBI offices. All the accused have pleaded innocent.

The indictment referred to an organisation, allegedly headed by the sheikh, which has carried out assorted acts of terrorism for at least four years, including bombings and murders aimed at the US government and governments abroad. Eleven of the 15 defendants had already been charged with plotting the bombing spree in New York City, although none of them had previously been charged with the Trade Center bombing.

The new indictment had been promised a month ago by prosecutors who were transcribing hundreds of hours of tape recordings captured by a government informant who had become a close confidant of Mr Abdel-Rahman, an outspoken foe of Egypt's secular governent. Prosecutors have said the government infiltrated the alleged terror ring in November 1991 but did not get information about the Trade Center before the attack.