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Feb 4, 2002
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Saudis airlifted hundreds of Al Qaida from Iran
Wednesday, June 19, 2002

ABU DHABI — Saudi Arabia has airlifted hundreds of Al Qaida militants home from Iran this year.

Gulf and Saudi opposition sources said the airlift began in January. They said Iran granted Riyad permission to send Saudi government jets to evacuate hundreds of Al Qaida and Taliban members detained by Iran. The Saudi nationals were fleeing approaching U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Saudi nationals were said to have comprised a significant portion of the estimated 10,000 Al Qaida agents who had been based in Afghanistan, Middle East Newsline reported. Fifteen of the 19 suicide attackers on New York and Washington on Sept. 11 were Saudis.
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The sources said many of the Saudis escaped Afghanistan by fleeing over the Iranian border where some of them were detained. They said those airlifted from Iran were regarded as Al Qaida members linked to the royal family.

Lower-ranking Saudi nationals were granted safe passage through Iran to the port of Bandar Abbas, where they arrived to the kingdom by sea. Other Saudis — particularly those who served as aides to Osama Bin Laden — were informed that they were no longer welcomed in the kingdom and were directed to other destinations in the Middle East, particularly North Africa. This included Saudi national Abu Zbeir Al Haili, captured by Morocco and said to have been a leading Al Qaida operative.

At one point, the sources said, Teheran had detained close to 200 Saudi nationals. But earlier this year, Teheran agreed to a Saudi offer to evacuate the imprisoned nationals. This prompted an airlift from eastern Iran to the Saudi city of Medina.

Saudi Arabia has acknowledged the return of Al Qaida members to the kingdom. On Tuesday, an Interior Ministry statement announced the arrest of 11 nationals on charges of planning attacks throughout the kingdom, including U.S. military targets. An Iraqi and Sudanese national were also arrested.

Officials said the Sudanese national was extradited from Khartoum after he escaped the kingdom through Iraq. The officials said Riyad has not determined whether Iraqi authorities were linked to the Al Qaida plot. "The security agencies have arrested elements linked to Al Qaida who were planning to carry out terrorist attacks against vital installations in the kingdom using explosives and two SA-7 missiles," the Saudi Press Agency quoted an Interior Ministry official as saying.

The London-based Al Hayat daily reported on Wednesday that the SA-7 missiles and other Al Qaida weapons were smuggled into Saudi Arabia from neighboring Yemen. The 1,100-kilometer Saudi-Yemeni border has been used as an escape route for Al Qaida militants who fled Afghanistan.

Saudi officials said some of the Al Qaida detainees were regarded as sleeper agents.

Earlier, the ministry released 160 Saudi nationals deemed as not posing a threat to the country. The Saudi-owned Al Hayat daily described the men as having fought alongside Taliban in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.

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