Thursday, December 24, 2009

CAIRO | A daughter of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden has taken refuge in the Saudi Embassy in Tehran after eluding guards who have held her and five brothers under house arrest for eight years, a Saudi-owned newspaper reported Wednesday.

The Saudi newspaper Asharq al-Awsat said the 17-year-old daughter, Eman, slipped away from guards and fled to the Saudi Embassy nearly a month ago. The embassy’s charge d’affaires, Fouad al-Qassas, confirmed to the paper that she has been at the mission for 25 days and that there were diplomatic efforts with the Iranians to get her out of the country.

It has long been believed that Iran has held in custody a number of bin Laden’s children since they fled Afghanistan after the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 - most notably Saad and Hamza bin Laden, who are thought to have held positions in al Qaeda.

This year, U.S. officials said Saad bin Laden may have been killed by a U.S. air strike in Pakistan, where they said he may have fled after being freed from Iran, but they could not confirm the information.

But Omar bin Laden, another son who lives abroad, told the Asharq al-Awsat that Eman told relatives in a call from the Saudi Embassy that 29-year-old Saad and four other brothers were still being held in Iran.

Attempts by the Associated Press to reach Omar were not immediately returned, and there was no comment from Iranian or Saudi officials.

Another bin Laden son, Abdullah, who lives in Saudi Arabia, told the Arab TV news network Al Jazeera in an interview aired this week that Eman telephoned him after she eluded guards who were taking her on a shopping trip in Tehran.

Osama bin Laden reportedly has 19 children by several wives. He took at least one of his wives and their children with him to Afghanistan in the late 1990s after he was thrown out of his previous refuge, Sudan. The family members, including the group that tried to escape through Iran, fled when the U.S.-led war erupted.

Omar bin Laden told Asharq al-Awsat that the family had not known for certain the fate of the siblings who fled through Iran until Eman’s escape.

“Until four weeks ago, we did not know where they were,” said the 28-year-old who is married to a British woman and has lived in Egypt and the Persian Gulf region. He said eight other bin Laden children live in Saudi Arabia and Syria.

Most of the al Qaeda leader’s children, such as Omar, live as legitimate businessmen. The extended bin Laden family, one of the wealthiest in Saudi Arabia, disowned Osama in 1994 when Saudi Arabia stripped him of his citizenship because of his militant activities. Osama bin Laden’s billionaire father, Mohammed, who died in 1967, had more than 50 children and founded the Binladen Group, a construction conglomerate that gets many major building contracts in the kingdom.

Omar bin Laden said he spoke by telephone in recent weeks with his 25-year-old brother, Othman, who is among the six siblings being held in Iran. Othman bin Laden said Iranian authorities detained the group after they crossed the border from Afghanistan in 2001 and have been holding them under guard in a housing complex in Tehran, Omar told Asharq al-Awsat.

In January, the Treasury slapped financial sanctions on Saad bin Laden and three other al Qaeda figures for suspected terror activities. At the time, Michael McConnell, director of national intelligence, said it was thought that Saad had left Iran and was likely in Pakistan.

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