Intelligence Minister Ali Yunesi told reporters, according to the Associated Press, ”A large number of small- and big-time elements of al-Qaida are in our custody.”
Yunesi said they made the arrests following the collapse of the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan, but did not release the names or the number of those detained. Some detainees would be tried in Iran, he said, while others would be extradited to their countries of origin or deported.
The minister’s comments are the first official acknowledgment that al-Qaida members are in Iran. The reports appear to confirm U.S. statements that leaders of the terrorist group led by Saudi exile Osama bin Laden were working within Iran.
The administration has said al-Qaida members operating from Iran may have been responsible for the suicide bombings in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in May.
U.S. officials said they could not confirm the accuracy of Wednesday’s statement but called on the country to hand over al-Qaida members to the United States or the detainees’ countries of origin.
“What is important is action. And we’ve made clear all along that the Iranian government needs to deport these people either to jurisdictions where they’re wanted for crimes, or to their home countries,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.
On Monday, President Bush warned that Syria and Iran will be held responsible for supporting terrorism.
“Now it is time for governments across the Middle East to support the efforts of these two men by fighting terror in all its forms. This includes the governments of Syria and Iran,” Mr. Bush said. “Syria and Iran continue to harbor and assist terrorists. This behavior is completely unacceptable, and states that support terror will be held accountable.”