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Tuesday, October 5, 1999 Published at 08:25 GMT 09:25 UK


World: Middle East

Bombing suspect faces deportation

The US has been investigating the bombing for three years

A Saudi dissident suspected of involvement in the bombing of a US military complex in which 19 Americans were killed, has been told he may be deported to Saudi Arabia to face charges there.

Hani Al-Sayegh has reneged on an agreement with the US Justice Department to cooperate with investigations into the bombing in 1996 of the Khobar Towers, near Dhahran in Saudi Arabia.

He is suspected of driving a car that signalled an explosives-laden truck when to pull up to Khobar Towers, a military housing facility. The blast killed 19 servicemen and injured hundreds more.

The agreement with US investigators called for Mr al-Sayegh to plead guilty to participating in an unrelated plot against Americans in Saudi Arabia that was never carried out.

US Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder said there was no evidence which can be used in an American court to prosecute the dissident for the bombing.

He said: "The Saudi Arabian Government believes it has a basis for prosecuting al-Sayegh for the Khobar attack under its legal system."

Slow progress

When Mr al-Sayegh backed out of the deal, the US began deportation proceedings, despite his fears that he would be tortured and persecuted in Saudi Arabia.

In the three years since the bombing the US authorities have been frustrated over the lack of progress in the investigation. The sensitive relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia has complicated matters further.

US law enforcement officials have repeatedly expressed scepticism about the Saudi Government's insistence that Iran was behind the attack. They are said to suspect the Saudis of trying to minimise the role of dissenters within their own nation.

However Mr Holder has for the first time provided on-the-record comments on the possible involvement of Iran.

He said: "We are investigating information concerning the involvement of Saudi nationals, Iranian government officials and others.

"We have not reached a conclusion regarding whether the attack was directed by the government of Iran".

Expelled

In June 1997, a year after the bombing, Mr al-Sayegh was expelled from Canada for his alleged terrorist activities. He was paroled into the US to be prosecuted under the plea agreement.

When he arrived he reneged on the deal on the grounds that he had not understood it, knew nothing about the Khobar attack and was out of Saudi Arabia when the bombing occurred.

In October 1997 a federal judge dropped the US charges against him because prosecutors did not have enough evidence to prosecute.

Scared for his life

Three months later the US ordered him to be deported as an alleged terrorist. Mr al-Sayegh claimed a right to avoid deportation to his country of nationality saying he feared for his life.

As a member of Saudi Arabia's Shiite minority, he has been a politically active opponent of the Saudi monarchy.

But the Justice Department ruled he was not entitled to remain in the US and that his deportation to Saudi Arabia was appropriate.

He could be sent back later this week unless he can persuade a federal court to delay his deportation.



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