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Australia probes 'al Qaeda links'

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CANBERRA, Australia (Reuters) -- Federal police are investigating possible links between two Australian Muslim leaders and an al Qaeda suspect held in Spain in connection with the September 11, 2001, attacks.

The Australian Federal Police said it considered both the Australians, named in Spanish court documents, to be "of interest" as part of 65 counter-terrorism investigations. The men have been under observation for some time but never arrested.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard said Thursday the government was aware of the claims in court documents, stemming from telephone intercepts, that there had been repeated contact between the two Australians and the al Qaeda suspect in Spain.

"The government agencies have known about these contacts for some time and, as indicated by the federal police, the two people concerned are described as people of interest to our authorities," Howard told Australian radio.

"On top of that, the police have sought the permission already of the Spanish authorities to interview the man in Spain."

Neither of the Australian men, who were widely named by local media, could be reached for comment by Reuters.

Tougher laws

One of the men, a former baggage handler at Sydney airport, had his passport confiscated last year as he was deemed a security threat by the government after being named in a CIA report as having links to the al Qaeda network.

The other told Australian television he did not know the prisoner in Madrid -- Imad Eddim Barakat Yarkas, alias Abu Dahdah -- and laughed at suggestions he had links to al Qaeda.

Dahdah faces charges of being involved in the September 11 airliner attacks in the United States, which are blamed on Osama bin Laden's radical Islamic network. He denies the charges.

Australia has toughened up its counter-terrorism laws and stepped up investigations in the wake of the September 11 attacks and last October's bombings on the neighboring Indonesian island of Bali, which killed 202 people, including 88 Australians.

But so far only one person, British-born Muslim convert Jack Roche, who is now an Australian citizen, has been charged with any links to terror activities. He is accused of conspiring to bomb Israeli diplomatic missions in Australia.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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