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Al-Qaida may be targeting Jordan

/ Source: The Associated Press

Jordanian officials said Saturday that suspected terrorists detained this week carrying explosives may have belonged to al-Qaida and been linked to plots to blow up vital public facilities to destabilize the U.S.-allied Arab kingdom.

In light of the fears, security forces have beefed up patrols and car searches across the capital, Amman, and issued alerts and rewards for three wanted fugitives and two cars with explosives believed associated with the men arrested earlier this week, officials said.

The terror suspects in custody were arrested when their vehicle -- filled with explosives, detonators and bombs -- was nabbed in a Jordanian town on the Syrian border. They confessed to plotting a series of deadly terror attacks in Jordan, officials close to the investigation told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

Security tightened
Jordanian officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have told the AP that cars carrying the suspected terrorists and explosives entered the country from neighboring Syria, claims which Damascus denies.

The suspects were planning to attack sensitive government institutions, the officials said without elaborating. But security has been significantly tightened around public offices, especially the interior and prime ministries.

The officials said investigators are examining the possible link between the detained suspects and Jordanian militant Ahmed al-Khalayleh, a reputed top al-Qaida figure better known as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Al-Zaraqawi, who is thought to be a close associate of Osama bin Laden, has been convicted and sentenced to death in absentia in Jordan for several terror plots against American and Israeli targets in the kingdom, the officials said.

U.S. officials have offered a $10 million reward for al-Zarqawi, saying he is trying to build a network of foreign militants in neighboring Iraq to work on al-Qaida's behalf.

Al-Zarqawi is suspected of connection to about a dozen high-profile attacks in Iraq, including the bombing of the U.N. headquarters in August and Shiite religious ceremonies last month. Moroccan authorities believe he may have helped guide the Madrid train bombings. U.S. and Jordanian law enforcement say he funded the Oct. 2002 assassination of a U.S. diplomat in Jordan.

Bounty offered
Jordan, a moderate Arab nation with close ties to America and a peace treaty with Israel, has been targeted by al-Qaida and other terrorists. Twenty-two Islamic extremists were convicted of plotting to attack U.S. and Israeli tourists during the kingdom's millennium celebrations.

Authorities are still hunting for three suspected fugitive terrorists and two other explosive-laden cars following tips obtained from the detainees, nationalities, number and confessions have not yet been made public.

The government has offered a bounty of 70,000 Jordanian dinars (US$100,000) for information leading to the fugitives or the cars, while state-run TV and radio has issued warnings about them and newspaper ads are showing their pictures with a "wanted" headline.

It was not immediately clear where the terror suspects and the ammunition entered Jordan from. But the location of where the first explosive-laden vehicle was seized, in the northern town of Ramtha, 6 miles from the Syrian border, has sparked speculation that it entered from Syria.

In a bid to soothe Syrian anxiety over the claims, Jordanian government spokeswoman Asma Khader said even if the vehicles did enter from Syria, "we are confident this wasn't because of negligence and certainly not because they were aware" of the plot.

The United States has demanded Syria do more to stamp out its suspected support for terrorists and supporting fighters opposed to Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and the U.S.-led military presence in Iraq. Syria rejects the U.S. claims.