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Sunday, 17 February, 2002, 15:45 GMT
Europeans detained in Iran
Taleban prisoners
The US says Taleban and al-Qaeda fled to Iran
By Jim Muir in Tehran

Five western European embassies - those of Britain, France, Belgium, Spain and the Netherlands - have been told by Iran that men carrying their passports are being held after being arrested near the eastern border.

In most cases it is a question of just one person each, though it is believed that there are five with French passports.

The Belgian passport-holder, who is of Moroccan origin, is accompanied by his wife and five children. They are being held with him in Teheran's Evin prison.

Most of those detained are believed to be of Arab or North African origin, apart from two of the French passport-holders.

Immigration offences

Embassy officials are now trying to establish whether the passports are being carried by the people to whom they were issued, or whether they were stolen and doctored.

Stung by American accusations that it has been allowing al-Qaeda and Taleban fugitives to cross the border, Iran let it be known last week that it had arrested 150 foreigners who had fled from Afghanistan and entered Iran illegally via Pakistan, which shares borders with both countries.

Iran said that no significant members of al-Qaeda or the Taleban were among those detained.

As far as Iran is concerned, the detainees are guilty only of immigration offences.

Two Kuwaitis and several dozen Saudi citizens are believed to have already been handed over to their embassies and repatriated.

The Iranian intelligence minister said 10 days ago that there was a big distinction to be drawn between hard-core al-Qaeda members and ordinary people who had set off to Afghanistan to join a holy war against the Americans and were now trying to get home.

See also:

13 Feb 02 | Middle East
Iran to hand over foreign prisoners
12 Feb 02 | Middle East
US warns Iran over al-Qaeda help
11 Jan 02 | South Asia
Iran defends role in Afghanistan
14 Jan 02 | Middle East
Iran pledges Afghan support
11 Jan 02 | Middle East
Iran hits back at Bush
10 Jan 02 | Americas
Bush warns Iran on terror
19 Nov 01 | South Asia
Iran regains role in Afghanistan
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