- The Washington Times - Friday, October 26, 2001

CIUDAD DEL ESTE, Paraguay This freewheeling border town with a large Muslim community, long known as a refuge for the corrupt and a distribution point for contraband goods, has now become a haven for radical Islamic terrorists, officials fear.
"In what is known as the 'tri-border area' where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay converge, we see the long-standing presence of Islamic extremist organizations, primarily Hezbollah," Francis Taylor, the State Department's top counterterrorism official, told at a congressional hearing last month. "These organizations engage in document forgery, money laundering, contraband smuggling and weapons and drug trafficking."
At the very least, the city supports a robust trade in illicit goods. Downtown, business is conducted in Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic and Chinese. The sidewalks are crowded with stalls selling watches, cigarettes and liquor all duty-free imports or pirated imitations.
Behind them, the back-to-back electronics stores offer big-ticket items. In the streets, men hustle out of stores and warehouses carrying boxes destined to be smuggled into Brazil.
After the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States, Paraguayan authorities tried to regain control of the area. Police swept through and arrested 14 Arab immigrants on immigration charges and began examining 46 bank accounts. No ties to the terrorist attacks have been found.
Officials point out that the great majority of this area's considerable Lebanese immigrant community is made up of hard-working business owners.
Nevertheless, authorities say, the area's porous borders, rampant corruption and huge black-market economy could all make this a convenient place from which to plan or finance terrorist activities.
"There's no proof, only suspicions," says Interior Minister Julio Cesar Fanego. "Any place in the world where you have three frontiers, there's concern."
Several suspected terrorists are known to have recently passed through the region. Last February, Ali Khali Mehri, a Lebanese businessman suspected of raising money for the radical Middle Eastern group Hezbollah, was arrested and granted bail. He subsequently fled the country.
In November, Salah Abdul Karim Yassine, a Palestinian immigrant suspected of planning attacks on the American and Israeli embassies here, was arrested in Asuncion. He is now serving a four-year prison term on unrelated charges.
A third man who passed through, Egyptian national Said Hassan Mokhles, is now being held in Uruguay, wanted by Egyptian authorities for suspected ties to the 1997 massacre of tourists in Luxor, Egypt.
Earlier this year, Paraguay's consul in Miami resigned after he had issued more than 300 visas, including more than a dozen to Arab nationals, without following established procedures.
Local Arabs say it would be impossible for terrorists to hide in their community, but many admit that they give financial support to Hezbollah.
"We became famous because of [Osama] bin Laden," said Lebanese-born Sheik Mounir Fadel, referring to the Afghanistan-based Saudi dissident believed to be behind the Sept. 11 strikes. "We didn't like it, but what can we do?"
U.S. Embassy spokesman Mark Davidson says recent evidence reveals a pattern of links to both radical individuals and Islamic extremist groups.
"We have made our concerns clear to Paraguayan authorities and are pleased by their willingness to act," he said.
Paraguayan authorities are now considering an anti-terrorism law and have promised to tighten the border.
"It is possible to impose control," Mr. Fanego said. "But 100 percent control is difficult."


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