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UN court links Al Qaeda, Africa's 'blood diamonds'

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone -- The Al Qaeda suspects in the deadly 1998 bombings of two US embassies took shelter in West Africa in the months before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, converting terror cash into untraceable diamonds, according to the findings of a UN-backed court obtained by the Associated Press.

The allegations were made as part of the Sierra Leone war crimes court's investigation of former Liberian president Charles Taylor, alleged to have been a middleman between Al Qaeda and West Africa's multimillion-dollar diamond trade.

''We have in the process of investigating Charles Taylor . . . clearly uncovered that he harbored Al Qaeda operatives in Monrovia [the Liberian capital] as late as the summer of 2001," said David Crane, the court's lead prosecutor. ''The central thread is blood diamonds."

Other international investigators said the three suspects are Mohammed Atef of Egypt, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed of Comoros, and Sheik Ahmed Salim Swedan of Kenya. Fazul and Swedan are believed to be in East Africa; Atef was killed in fighting in Afghanistan.

All were on the FBI's most-wanted terrorist list in connection with the Aug. 7, 1998, car bombings that killed 231 people at American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for both attacks.

The three took shelter in Liberia in June and July of 2001, according to the international investigation.

Crane, a veteran US Defense Department lawyer, said he had no information on whether any funds from alleged Al Qaeda diamond dealings were used to carry out the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.

The illicit international trade in so-called blood diamonds draws on generally high-quality gems from Sierra Leone. The trade helped fund many of West Africa's wars in the 1990's and is increasingly under international scrutiny as a suspected means of finance for terror.

In the war crimes court's 17-count indictment, Taylor is accused of trading guns with and aiding Sierra Leone's insurgency.

Taylor fled Liberia in August, after the international indictments, as armed opposition forces laid siege to his capital and the international community pressed for his departure. The ousted leader now lives in exile in Nigeria, which offered him asylum from the UN-Sierra Leone indictment.

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