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Egypt Calls for US To Ease Criticism

Cairo says crackdown is justified

FOLLOWING the World Trade Center bombing, Egyptian officials have quietly urged the United States to ease up on human rights objections concerning Egypt's campaign against Islamic extremists, informed sources close to the Cairo government say.

Following the March 4 arrest of Mohammed Salameh in the World Trade Center bombing and the resulting media coverage of the suspect's possible links to fundamentalist Egyptian Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, Egyptian officials told Washington officials that they hope to be free of pressure over human rights violations as the government cracks down on Islamic militants, these sources say.

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The US on March 10 also arrested another suspect in the bombing, Nidal Ayyad. Officials are investigating a possible link between the suspects in custody and overseas terrorist groups, based on the fact that Mr. Salameh and Mr. Ayyad received $8,000 from Europe in a joint bank account before the bombing.

US administration officials have refused to comment on any shift in policy on Egypt's human rights practices. But informed sources close to the Egyptian government say that the US now has expressed understanding of Egypt's position.

According to these sources, the New York bombing, in effect, has put an end to differences between the US and Egypt who, although close partners, were at odds not only over Islamic fundamentalists and how Egypt should handle them but also over the presence in the US of the radical sheikh.

SINCE 1990, Sheikh Rahman, considered the driving force behind Islamic extremists groups in Egypt, has been preaching from pulpits in the New York-New Jersey area, advocating death to Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak (who will visit the US in April) and to infidels. In addition, he has been sending audio cassettes of his sermons to his followers in Egypt. Bolstered by his message, his followers have stepped up attacks in Egypt, including recent ones on foreign tourists, decimating Egypt's tourist industr y.

Egypt has responded with mass roundups, detentions, and alleged torture, all of which have elicited US criticism. Especially since the start of the Clinton administration, Egypt has worried that Washington would be tough on Egypt's human rights record.

The government this week began what is described as the toughest crackdown in years on fundamentalists. (Egyptian crackdown, left.) Egypt's new hard line caps two years of frustration - expressed time and time again - over the presence in the US of Sheikh Rahman, who arrived in the US in July 1990 on a tourist visa acquired in Sudan.

In 1981, Sheikh Rahman was indicted in the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat but subsequently acquitted. Over the years, the Egyptian government has frequently detained him or placed him under house arrest.

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In the spring of 1991, the Mubarak government, following press reports that the sheikh was living in New York and had acquired permanent residence, began to warn the US State Department, "It was too much of a coincidence that he got into the US," said one Egyptian source.

Finally, last March, the US rescinded the sheikh's green card, but he then applied for political asylum and the case is mired in legalities. Some Egyptian officials also believe that the sheikh should be arrested in the World Trade Center bombing because of his sermons at New York area mosques in which he incited followers to "fight infidels." The US, on the other hand, reportedly considers the connection too loose for an arrest, at least for now.

The source says that this week the sheikh preached at a mosque in Detroit frequented by members of Hizbullah (Party of God). The Party of God, a Lebanese group, planted car bombs and took hostages in Lebanon and has close links with Iran's Islamic Republic.

Egypt hopes that Washington eventually will consult Cairo on where to deport the sheikh.

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