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U.S. diplomat visits American detainee in Ethiopia

WASHINGTON—Ethiopia's intelligence service is holding an American who fled Somalia's fighting in a secret facility pending a hearing on his status next month, U.S. officials said Friday.

Ethiopian authorities on Friday allowed a U.S. diplomat to visit Amir Mohamed Meshal, 24, of Tinton Falls, N.J., only the second such visit since he was incarcerated in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital, about six weeks ago.

Meshal was among some 160 people who fled the fighting in Somalia in January and were detained in Kenya on immigration charges in a roundup that was coordinated with the United States.

In Kenya, Meshal told investigators that he'd stayed briefly in an al-Qaida camp in Somalia, but he denied undergoing training or being a fighter. FBI agents interviewed him twice and decided not to press charges against him. Kenyan authorities sent him and some 80 others back to Somalia with no legal proceedings, and from there Meshal was sent to Ethiopia.

On Friday, Meshal told a State Department official that he was in good health and was being well treated, and he was allowed to pass messages to his family in the United States, according to two State Department officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

However, Ethiopian security officials refused to allow Meshal to use the diplomat's cell phone to call his family in the United States, according to his father, Mohamed Meshal.

"The frustration continues," said the elder Meshal, who's been e-mailing appeals for help to the White House and State Department since he learned where his son is from a McClatchy Newspapers report nearly two weeks ago.

The State Department told him that Ethiopian authorities haven't charged his son and plan to hold a status hearing April 14 to determine whether he should be held as a prisoner of war.

Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., who represents Tinton Falls and has been working for Meshal's release, learned from U.S. officials that the Ethiopia Intelligence and Security Service is holding him without charges at a secret facility, an aide said, asking not to be further identified because he isn't authorized to discuss the subject publicly.

The fighting in Somalia was triggered by a U.S.-backed Ethiopian offensive against the Council of Islamic Courts, a coalition of militias that briefly controlled much of the country and that the Bush administration has charged is a front for al-Qaida.

U.S. officials asserted that Kenya's decision to send Meshal back to Somalia took them by surprise and said they filed a protest with the Kenyan government.

But Kenyan and U.S. human rights groups dismiss the claim, pointing out that Kenya turned over another American who fled Somalia and admitted training with al-Qaida to the FBI.

They charge that the secret transfer of Amir Meshal and the other detainees back to Somalia—sometimes called a rendition—violated international law.

"Each of these governments has played a shameful role in mistreating people fleeing a war zone," said Georgette Gagnon, deputy Africa director of Human Rights Watch, in a statement Friday night. "Kenya has secretly expelled people, the Ethiopians have caused dozens to `disappear,' and U.S. security agents have routinely interrogated people held incommunicado."

Jonathan Hafetz of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, who's providing legal assistance to Meshal's family, said he saw "no indication at all" that the case "is a high priority with the United States."

Meanwhile, pitched battles raged for a second day around the Somali capital Friday, pitting Ethiopian and Somali transitional-government forces against Islamic insurgents in what the International Committee of the Red Cross called the worst fighting in 15 years.

The insurgents downed an Ethiopian helicopter near the airport, dragged the bodies of Ethiopian soldiers through the streets and exchanged artillery, rocket and small-arms fire with Ethiopian and Somali government forces.

Scores of people have been killed and hundreds wounded—most of them civilians—and thousands were trapped in their homes, the ICRC said.

While the Ethiopian intervention ended the militias' control of much of the country, it also ignited an insurgency by Islamic militants, a major setback for Bush administration's counterterrorism policy.

The fighting in Mogadishu erupted Thursday when Ethiopian forces, seeking to complete a withdrawal from Somalia, broke a cease-fire and launched an operation to crush insurgents operating in the capital.

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(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Mahad Ahmed Elmi contributed to this report from Mogadishu, Somalia.)

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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