Iran hands al-Qa'ida suspects over to Saudis in sign of thaw with America

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The Independent Online

Iran has handed over more than a dozen suspected al-Qa'ida fighters to Saudi Arabia for interrogation, knowing that any information will be passed on to the United States. The move has been interpreted as proof that Iran is still prepared to co-operate with America in its "war on terror".

Iran has handed over more than a dozen suspected al-Qa'ida fighters to Saudi Arabia for interrogation, knowing that any information will be passed on to the United States. The move has been interpreted as proof that Iran is still prepared to co-operate with America in its "war on terror".

The Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, said the request for the men to be handed over was made after Saudi intelligence officials travelled to Tehran to interview them in May. The prisoners, detained with four women and six children, were flown to Saudi Arabia in June.

"We asked [the Iranians] to hand them over and they did," the prince said. "Iran has not only co-operated with Saudi Arabia in this conflict in Afghanistan but co-operated extensively with the United States." He added: "All the information we have on al- Qa'ida has been exchanged with the US." The transfer of the prisoners – who all entered Iran from Afghanistan when the US launched its attack – seemingly disproves Tehran's earlier claim that there were no suspected al-Qa'ida fighters in the country.

But perhaps more importantly, it suggests Iran is still willing to co-operate with the US, despite President George Bush's comments linking Tehran with Iraq and North Korea in an "axis of evil". Prince Saud, speaking to The Washington Post, said there had been direct co-operation between the US and Iran, though he declined to be specific.

In February, Iran confirmed reports that it was holding about 100 people from various Arab countries who had entered the country from Afghanistan. It chose to describe the people as refugees and denied that they were members of al-Qa'ida. Since then, however, Iran has quietly been returning these detainees to their native countries, including Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. In all these countries, the detainees have been interrogated by officials and any information has been passed on to the Americans.

Yesterday, Senator Fred Thompson, a Republican member of the Senate Intelligence committee, urged caution. "This is one instance that serves the purposes of the Saudis and also the Iranians," he said. "But over a longer period of time, the track record has not been very good. As far as Iran is concerned, of course, there is an indication that they have co-operated with and assisted al-Qa'ida in times past."

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