Al-Qa'ida lieutenant warns US will 'pay dearly' if it harms detainees

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A television station based in Dubai broadcast a taped voice message purportedly made by a top lieutenant of Osama bin Laden yesterday, warning that the United States would "pay dearly" if it harmed any of the prisoners being held at its Guantanamo Bay camp.

The Arab satellite station al-Arabiya said the tape carried the voice of Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian doctor who is number two to Bin Laden at the top of al-Qa'ida terror network.

American officials said they had not yet been able to authenticate the recording. Yet the US Attorney General, John Ashcroft, repeated yesterday that threat of renewed attacks by al-Qa'ida should be taken seriously. "Al-Qa'ida is still bent on injuring the United States," he said, adding that Osama bin Laden's organisation wanted "to strike us whenever and wherever they can".

The Pentagon is holding 660 terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay. Early last month, President George Bush announced plans to put six of the prisoners on trial before a military tribunal, with the possibility that they would be sentenced to death. The announcement sparked international criticism. The detainees include nationals from Britain, Australia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

"America has announced it will start putting on trial in front of military tribunals the Muslim detainees at Guantanamo and might sentence them to death," the recording said. "I swear by the almighty God ... that crusader America will pay dearly for any harm done to any of the Muslim prisoners it is holding," the voice recording said.

The taped voice went on to warn of new attacks even more devastating than the 11 September hijackings. "We tell America one thing: what you have seen so far is nothing but the first skirmishes. The real battle hasn't started yet."

Mr Ashcroft cited the success of American intelligence in already thwarting scores of terrorist plots. "I believe we've disrupted dozens and dozens and dozens, over 100 terrorist-related attacks around the world since 9/11," he said. Bin Laden and Zawahiri are believed to be hiding somewhere in the mountains between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Montasser al-Zayat, an Egyptian lawyer, said he believed the tape was authentic. "[Zawahiri] is my friend and I know his voice well," he said.