Iran vows to expel any al-Qa'ida fighters

Iran denied US claims that it harboured al-Qa'ida members, but vowed yesterday to expel any members of the terror network that it might find.

Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, said on Tuesday that there was "no question" that al-Qa'ida members were in Iran. He added that there was speculation about their involvement in last week's bombings in Saudi Arabia.

Abdollah Ramazanzadeh, a spokesman for the Iranian government, said Mr Rumsfeld's accusations were "without foundation". Iran had expelled about 500 suspected al-Qa'ida terrorists in the past year, he said. "The only al- Qa'ida members that we know of are the ones that have been expelled. If any exist in Iran they have entered illegally and we have no information about them.

"Any Iranian citizen or foreign security organisation which has information about the presence of people suspected of having links to al-Qa'ida in Iran should provide us with that information and we will take action and expel them."

US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have said al-Qa'ida figures in Iran include Saif al-Adel, an Egyptian indicted for conspiracy in the 1998 bombings of two US embassies in east Africa. One official said Saad bin Laden, the son of al-Qa'ida's fugitive leader, Osama bin Laden, may also be in Iran.

Iranian officials have strenuously denied US charges of cooperating with al-Qa'ida, saying Iran strongly opposed the network and its former Taliban hosts in Afghanistan long before the 11 September attacks.

Iran's government condemned last week's bombings in Saudi Arabia and Morocco. Those attacks are being investigated for suspected links to al-Qa'ida. But diplomats in Tehran say rogue elements in Iran's hardline Revolutionary Guards may have offered shelter to fleeing al-Qa'ida members without the knowledge of Iran's reformist government. Mr Ramazanzadeh said several members of Iran's security forces had been killed in fighting with militants in the country, and about 500 people suspected of having ties with al-Qa'ida had been captured and expelled in the past year. "Some elements suspected of having ties with al-Qa'ida have entered Iran through Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq at various times illegally and they have been expelled," he said.

He said efforts to capture al-Qa'ida members were hampered because many carried multiple fake identification papers, possessed sophisticated weapons and came from a wide variety of countries.