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Czechs confirm suspected hijacker met Iraqi

Atta: On board World Trade Center plane  

PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- A Czech minister has confirmed that the suspected leader of the suicide hijackers met an Iraqi intelligence agent in the Czech capital.

Interior minister Stanislav Gross said the meeting between Mohamed Atta and Ahmad Khalil Ibrahim Samir Al-Ani took place in April just before the Iraqi was expelled for conduct incompatible with his diplomatic status.

Intelligence sources told CNN about the meeting in the days following the September 11 terror attacks in New York and Washington, but this is the first official confirmation by Czech officials.

Gross told reporters: "We can confirm now that during his ... trip to the Czech Republic, he did have a contact with an officer of the Iraqi intelligence."

Gross did not reveal specifics of the meeting, but his comments confirm an association by one of the hijackers with Baghdad. Iraq has strongly denied being involved in the attacks on the U.S.

He said it was known that Atta had been in Prague at least twice - once in May 2000 when he entered the country from Germany by bus and flew the following day from the capital's main airport to the United States and once this past spring when he met Ani.

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"Details of their meeting are being investigated," Gross said, adding that checks were being made to see if Atta had made other visits to the country.

Atta, an Egyptian who studied in Germany, is believed to have been the pilot of American Airlines Flight 11, the first plane to smash into the World Trade Center.

Iraq's deputy prime minister, Tarik Aziz, told the Los Angeles Times last week, "This meeting did not take place. It is a lie. We checked with him: 'Did you ever meeting somebody called Atta?'"

Asked if Atta might have been using a different name, Aziz told the L.A. Times, "Even if such an incident had taken place, it doesn't mean anything. Any diplomat in any mission might meet people in a restaurant here or there and talk to them, which is meaningless. If that person turned out to be something else, that doesn't mean he had a connection with what that person did later."

Another Czech official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told The Associated Press news agency that intelligence agents were checking whether Ani had also met a second hijacker.

Government officials told AP earlier this month that Ani was under surveillance because he was suspected of being involved in a plot to attack the headquarters of Radio Free Europe.

The radio station, partially funded by Washington, broadcasts to Iran and Iraq. Baghdad has called that an act of aggression.

Intelligence sources tell CNN there is no known link beween the Prague meeting and the anthrax attacks since September 11.


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