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Manila police seize fake passports

Azmi bin Salleh
Azmi bin Salleh  

MANILA, Philippines -- Philippine police say they have arrested a Malaysian carrying more than 100 fake passports -- possibly intended for delivery to al Qaeda terrorists.

The Malaysian man is believed to be a member of a radical Islamist group, Jemaah Islamiah, which authorities accuse of coordinating militant activity in Southeast Asia.

But the Malaysian ambassador in Manila has said the man was not a militant, but was simply procuring visas for Malaysians intending to perform the haj, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca.

Azmi bin Salleh was arrested Thursday at Ninoy Aquino International Airport as he was preparing to board a plane from Manila to Bangkok.

Along with the passports, he was carrying more than $50,000 in U.S. currency, Chief Superintendent Marcelo Ele told Reuters reporters on Friday.

The 42-year-old man, who said he was a travel agent based in Kuala Lumpur, had planned to board a Kuwait Airlines flight to Bangkok, Ele said.

Sketchy case

The police chief said the passports were likely intended for use by senior members of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network who have fled Afghanistan after the U.S.-led campaign.

Bin Salleh was also carrying a map of Afghanistan and a cellphone with the name Osama bin Laden displayed on the screen, a report released by Ele said.

But Malaysian Ambassador Mohammed Taufik told Reuters reporters the man had applied for visas at the Saudi Arabian embassy in Manila.

He was doing this to circumvent a quota enforced by Saudi Arabia of haj visas granted in each country, Taufik said.

Washington says bin Laden and al Qaeda masterminded the September 11 attacks on the United States. Southeast Asian authorities believe Jemaah Islamiah has close links with al Qaeda.

Asian arrests

Thursday's arrest is the latest in a series of crackdowns on people suspected to have ties to the al Qaeda network.

Last month, Singapore announced it had arrested 15 people after uncovering a Jemaah Islamiah plan to bomb U.S. targets in the island republic. Two were later released.

More than 20 Jemaah activists have also been arrested in Malaysia and several in the Philippines.

Philippine police have been on heightened alert, particularly at international airports, since the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington.

Last month, police arrested Fathur Rohman Al-Ghozi, described as a key leader of the Jemaah Islamiyah.

Al-Ghozi, identified as an Indonesian, gave information that led to the discovery last month of more than a ton of TNT buried in the backyard of a house in the southern Philippines.




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