- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 19, 2002

From combined dispatches
Iran denied yesterday that Taliban and al Qaeda fighters were among some 150 foreigners arrested at its border with Pakistan though it acknowledged they could be terrorist sympathizers and said they would be sent back to their home countries.
In the meantime, Tehran prepared for a busy round of diplomacy as Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi was set to fly to Moscow and interim Afghan leader Hamid Karzai announced he would visit Iran next week despite U.S. charges that Tehran was trying to undermine his fragile rule.
At a press conference in Tehran yesterday, Mr. Kharrazi said the foreigners seized last week included 40 women, about 80 children and several men, most of them Europeans and Arabs.
"We are waiting to repatriate the 150 people arrested recently on the Pakistani border. There is no member of al Qaeda among them," he said. "It is possible that some of these people supported one group or another, but according to our inquiries there are no members of al Qaeda."
Diplomats in Tehran said they had been contacted by the authorities to help establish the detainees' identities, including French, British, Belgian and Dutch nationals. Reports said one of the French citizens was a woman who converted to Islam and married an al Qaeda member.
On Sunday, the Foreign Ministry dismissed local press reports that Iran was holding Ayman al Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's No. 2 in al Qaeda. Tehran also has denied U.S. accusations that it has allowed al Qaeda fighters and members of the Taliban militia to enter Iran.
President Bush had branded Iran part of an "axis of evil," and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who was accompanying Mr. Bush on a trip to Asia, said in Tokyo yesterday that Tehran hadn't done enough to stop terrorism.
Mr. Kharrazi said Mr. Bush's comments had erased all chances of dialogue and accused Washington of "trying to complete its hegemony on the world."
"America's rulers have proved that they cannot be trusted," he said. "They are seeking unilaterally to become the masters of the world and want to sweep aside all competitors from other countries."
Mr. Kharrazi noted that the line of communication between Tehran and Washington was still open through the Swiss Embassy in the Iranian capital, which looks after U.S. interests. The United States and Iran broke off diplomatic ties after the 1979 Islamic revolution.
"Our official policy is clear," he said. "We are not looking for tension and our message to the world is coalition for peace. But Iran is not an Afghanistan that anyone would dare to attack. In the case of any attack, the Iranian nation, which is experienced in war, will defend its interests."
He also said Mr. Karzai's visit will "strengthen" ties between Iran and Afghanistan and will "help stabilize his government."
"We are resolved to continue our presence in Afghanistan to help the interim government. Iran wants peace, stability and economic development in Afghanistan," the foreign minister said.
Iran has pledged more than $500 million in aid for Afghan reconstruction. Iranian newspapers reported yesterday that Tehran already was paying the salaries of many university professors in Afghanistan.
"We also want the issue of drug trafficking, from which we have suffered irreparable losses, to be resolved," Mr. Kharrazi said.
He said he would discuss the "situation in Afghanistan and notably the recent attitude of the United States" with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov during his visit to Moscow, which started today.
"My visit has been planned for a long time, and I can say that our two countries have common positions with regard to many subjects," Mr. Kharrazi said.

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