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Imprisoned American denies being al-Qaida operative

WASHINGTON—A U.S. citizen imprisoned in Ethiopia reportedly told investigators that he was briefly in an al-Qaida camp in Somalia and had tried to fire a gun during a clash with foreign troops in the south of the war-torn country, but denied he was a fighter or had undergone military training.

Amir Mohamed Meshal, 24, of Tinton Falls, N.J., made the statements in early January while he was being held in Kenya for illegally entering the country, according to an account provided to McClatchy Newspapers on condition that the source remain anonymous.

His father, Mohamed Meshal, angrily disputed the account, saying that FBI agents who interviewed his son in Kenya had found no grounds on which to charge him, and that four British citizens who had been held with him were freed and sent home.

"This was under coercion or under threat," he said of the account. "U.S. officials are orchestrating the whole symphony."

The case is at the center of an international controversy triggered by the disclosure that Amir Mohamed Meshal—and scores of other people—who entered Kenya from Somalia were secretly sent back to Somalia without legal proceedings between Jan. 20 and Feb. 10, then turned over to Ethiopian forces.

Ethiopian troops had entered Somalia with U.S. support to help a U.N.-recognized Transitional Federal Government crush the Islamic Courts Council, a coalition of militias accused by the Bush administration of being an al-Qaida front.

Amir Mohamed Meshal, who was transferred back to Somalia after being interviewed in Nairobi by FBI agents and a U.S. consular official, has been in a prison in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, for more than a month without charges.

Ethiopian officials have told U.S. diplomats that a hearing will be held in the next few weeks at which he could be declared a prisoner of war.

Samuel Assefa, the Ethiopian ambassador to Washington, said no U.S. official had contacted him about the case, and that the Foreign Ministry in Addis Ababa had no details. The State Department, however, said last week that U.S. officials had been in touch with "high level" Ethiopian officials and gained access to the detainee last week.

His case contrasts with that of another American who also was held for illegally entering Kenya from Somalia. Daniel Joseph Maldonado was released to U.S. custody after allegedly admitting involvement with al-Qaida, flown to Texas and charged with undergoing training in weapons and bomb-making.

Amir Mohamed Meshal told investigators in Kenya that foreign soldiers captured him carrying an AK-47 assault rifle during a battle in a forest in southern Somalia, according to the account provided to McClatchy Newspapers.

He said he had aimed the weapon at them, but that it misfired, and he recalled wondering how such a reliable gun could misfire at such an inopportune moment.

He admitted to investigators that he had been at an al-Qaida camp west of Mogadishu, but denied that he was a fighter or had undergone training, and had remained there for only a brief period.

He said he believed al-Qaida members were at the camp, but wasn't sure, and that he had been there with a few friends, including Maldonado.

Amir Mohamed Meshal told investigators that he and two Americans, one of whom is believed to have been Maldonado, had gone to Somalia from Egypt after first considering fighting jihad—or holy war—in Sudan.

Asked if he thought he'd made a mistake, he replied, "We messed up."

The account provided to McClatchy Newspapers left major gaps, including the nationality of the troops who detained Amir Mohamed Meshal—U.S. special forces are known to have been with Ethiopian troops—and how he ended up being taken into Kenyan custody at the border village of Kiunga around Jan. 24.

His father said that Amir, the eldest of his four sons, had spent a year working in the Egyptian capital, Cairo, as a telemarketer, and after the firm went bankrupt, Amir had gone to Dubai in November to work as an English-speaking tour guide.

Mohamed Meshal, 51, a naturalized American who emigrated from Egypt at age 17, said his son Amir never mentioned knowing Maldonado in Cairo, had never shown an interest in politics, and was not religious.

Jonathan Hafetz of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, who is providing legal assistance to the Meshals, was skeptical of the account of Amir's interrogation provided to McClatchy Newspapers.

He noted that U.S. officials had claimed that Yaser Esam Hamdi, an American captured in Afghanistan in 2001 and sent to Guantanamo Bay, had been carrying a weapon.

"But when it came time for the government to produce its proof in a federal court, the government failed to do so and the government released Hamdi," he said. "As we've learned over and over again in the (Bush) administration's so-called war on terror, an allegation often proves false, and that the way to find the truth is through the rule of law."

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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