WASHINGTON—Ethiopia has changed its mind and decided for the time being not to free an American Muslim who was captured trying to flee war-torn Somalia and was held without charges in Kenya and Ethiopia for more than four months, according to an internal U.S. government document.
The latest impediment to Amir Mohamed Meshal's repatriation follows the resolution of an internal U.S. government squabble that had blocked his return. The Bush administration now seeks to bring him back as quickly as possible, officials said.
"The Ethiopians have changed their minds," said an internal U.S. government memo read to McClatchy Newspapers on Tuesday. It gave no reason for the turnaround.
Ethiopia had been expected to release Meshal, 24, of Tinton Falls, N.J., from a secret prison following an April 13 hearing in Addis Ababa at which a military tribunal declined to charge him with a crime, U.S. officials said.
The State Department had made arrangements to fly him home. But it discovered that the FBI had placed Meshal's name on a no-fly list of suspected security threats maintained by the Department of Homeland Security.
Last week, officials from the FBI and the State, Homeland Security and Justice Departments agreed that Meshal should be removed from the no-fly list and brought back to the United States.
An administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case, said that Ethiopian officials had then told the U.S. Embassy that "administrative procedures" for his release were under way, but that they "would take an indefinite number of days."
"These are internal domestic procedures. They are complex logistical issues that are being worked to get him to the United States," explained the administration official without elaborating.
He said U.S. officials were "making every logistical effort that needs to be made to bring this guy back to the United States."
Jonathan Hafetz, a lawyer with the Brennan Center for Justice who's providing legal advice to Meshal's relatives, said in a letter Tuesday to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that the relatives' congressman, Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., had informed them on April 19 that Meshal would be home in two days.
The delay in Meshal's release raises "serious concern about his welfare, the United States' commitment to bringing him home and the United States' role in his detention in Ethiopia," said the letter, which was also sent to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.
It said that Meshal's family was suffering "tremendous hardship" and called for "immediate action" to obtain his release.
Meshal was among scores of people who were captured in Somalia as they fled toward Kenya in January after a U.S.-backed Ethiopian military offensive toppled a coalition of Islamic militias that had seized power last summer.
The FBI interviewed Meshal during his incarceration in Kenya, but it declined to charge him with any crime. Kenyan authorities then secretly returned him to Somalia on Feb. 10 from which he was then sent to Ethiopia.
While in Kenya, Meshal told interrogators that he had traveled to Somalia last year with another American Muslim to help the so-called Islamic Courts Council build an Islamic society, according to an account provided to McClatchy Newspapers.
His companion, Daniel Joseph Maldonado, who was also captured fleeing Somalia, pleaded guilty last week in a federal court in Texas to a charge of undergoing training with a foreign terrorist organization.
The Bush administration accused the Courts council of being an al-Qaida front and provided military, intelligence and political support for the Ethiopian offensive.
Meshal told interrogators that he'd briefly been in a training camp near Mogadishu, Somalia, where he believed there were al-Qaida members, but he denied undergoing training or being a fighter.
He told interrogators that while fleeing Somalia, he tried to fire a weapon at pursuing soldiers, but that it jammed and he was captured.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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