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updated 6/1/2004 6:41:04 PM ET 2004-06-01T22:41:04

Al-Qaida suspects in the deadly 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies took shelter in West Africa in the months before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, converting cash from terrorism into untraceable diamonds, according to findings of a U.N.-backed court obtained by The Associated Press.

The allegations came as part of the investigation by the Sierra Leone war crimes court of former Liberian President Charles Taylor, who is alleged have been a middleman between al-Qaida and West Africa’s multimillion-dollar diamond trade.

“We have in the process of investigating Charles Taylor ... clearly uncovered that he harbored al-Qaida operatives in Monrovia [the Liberian capital] as late as the summer of 2001,” said David Crane, the court’s lead prosecutor. “The central thread is blood diamonds.”

Other international investigators told the AP that the three suspects were Mohammed Atef of Egypt, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed of Comoros and Sheikh Ahmed Salim Swedan of Kenya. Fazul and Swedan are believed to be in East Africa; Atef was killed in fighting in Afghanistan.

All were on the FBI’s most-wanted terrorist list in connection with car bombings Aug. 7, 1998, that killed 231 people at the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Al-Qaida claimed responsibility for both attacks.

The three took shelter in Liberia in June and July of 2001, according to the international investigation findings obtained by the AP.

FBI heavily involved in probe
Crane, a veteran U.S. Defense Department lawyer, said he had no information on whether any funds from alleged al-Qaida diamond dealings were used to carrying out the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington.

FBI teams have repeatedly traveled to West Africa to investigate allegations of al-Qaida diamond dealings here.

No charges are known to have been brought in any court as a result of any of the probes into al-Qaida’s alleged links to West Africa. U.S. officials say they have found little or no evidence to support those allegations.

The illicit international trade in so-called blood diamonds draws on generally high-quality gems from Sierra Leone.

The trade, which helped fund many of West Africa’s wars of the 1990s, is increasingly under international scrutiny as a suspected means of finance for terrorism.

The United States estimates that $70 million to $100 million in diamonds are still smuggled out of Sierra Leone every year, despite the coming of peace and international accords to block illicit trafficking.

Crane, in the Sierra Leone capital, Freetown, said he had “documentary” and “direct evidence” of al-Qaida’s West Africa dealings.

The findings obtained in part by the AP concluded that flight records and some undisclosed evidence in Europe appeared to support the accounts of pre-Sept. 11 al-Qaida diamond business in Liberia.

Crane said he gave the information that his own team uncovered to the United States and European and other North American countries.

“Now, what other countries, and it’s not just the United States, choose to do with that is clearly up to them,” Crane said.

Links to Taylor
U.S. and U.N. authorities and international rights groups have long believed that Taylor was a top conduit for smuggled West Africa diamonds. Taylor is alleged to have used diamonds acquired in Sierra Leone to bankroll the 1989-96 insurgency that brought him to power in neighboring Liberia.

He is the most prominent of 11 surviving suspects indicted by the U.N.-Sierra Leone court, which opens its first trials Thursday. The tribunal was established to prosecute alleged crimes against humanity during a vicious 10-year war over control of Sierra Leone and its diamond fields.

Charges among the war crimes court’s 17-count indictment accuse Taylor of trading guns with and aiding Sierra Leone’s insurgency.

Taylor fled Liberia in August, after the international indictments were entered, as armed opposition forces laid siege to his capital and the international community pressed for his departure. He now lives in exile in Nigeria, which offered him asylum.

Taylor has repeatedly denied the charges against him. His spokesman in Nigeria did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

The U.N.-Sierra Leone court and rights groups have pressed unsuccessfully for Nigeria to yield Taylor for trial.

The demand raises unease among some African and Western diplomats, who fear that bringing him out of exile for prosecution could jar the region’s unsteady peace.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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