TEHRAN -- Iran last month gave the UN Security Council the names of 225 suspected Al Qaeda operatives it detained and returned to their countries, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said yesterday.
He said the Al Qaeda suspects were detained after illegally crossing into Iran. He also said Iran told the United Nations about 2,300 people who sneaked across the border from Pakistan between October 2002 and July 2003 were deported back to Pakistan.
When asked how many Al Qaeda operatives were in Iranian custody, Asefi would say only that they had "a number of them." He said Iran would not reveal the number and names of Al Qaeda suspects in custody for security reasons.
Intelligence Minister Ali Yunesi confirmed for the first time in July that Iran was holding "a large number of small and big-time elements of Al Qaeda."
But Asefi denied reports of specific Al Qaeda operatives being in Iran.
"Reports on presence of certain Al Qaeda people in Iran are not correct. Such news is based on speculation and rumor," Asefi said.
US officials have said intelligence suggests that Al Qaeda figures in Iran include Saif al-Adl, a top Al Qaeda agent possibly connected to May bombings in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; Abu Mohammed al-Masri, wanted in connection with the bombings of two US embassies in East Africa in 1998; Abu Musab Zarqawi, whom some US officials describe as the key link between Al Qaeda and toppled Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein; and Osama bin Laden's eldest son, Saad, Al Qaeda head and mastermind.
The Al Qaeda operatives are believed to have fled to Iran from neighboring Afghanistan during the Taliban's fall in late 2001 or early 2002.
American and Saudi Arabian officials say intelligence reports suggest several of bin Laden's top echelon have been in Iran. They also believe that Al Qaeda operatives based in Iran coordinated the May 12 suicide bombings of housing complexes in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, which killed 26 bystanders. Nine bombers also died.
Iran has said the Al Qaeda figures it has in custody could not have been involved in the Riyadh attacks because they were detained beforehand.