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bin Laden's son in U.S. custody? | (UPI) -- At least 20 suspected members of al Qaida, possibly including one of the sons of accused terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, were deported by Iran to Pakistan two months ago and handed over to the Americans, according to Pakistani intelligence officials.

The two officials -- reached by telephone in Islamabad -- confirmed media reports of the deportation Sunday, and added that the suspects had been given to U.S. authorities. But whether bin Laden's son was among the group remained unclear.

A U.S. official, said he could not discuss "who the Pakistanis had turned over to us and how."

"We are very pleased with the level of cooperation we have with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and we will continue working with them," the official, who works at the U.S. State Department, told United Press International.

Later, he added his guess was that if the Iranians had bin Laden's son, they would not have given him to the Pakistanis.

"They would hand him over to the Saudis because he is a Saudi national," said the official, adding, "It's just a thought."

Iranian policy on returning those who have crossed its borders without proper documentation -- as they say the group of al Qaida suspects did -- is unclear. Officials have made contradictory statements about the destination of the group they deported.

The Saudis have, so far, not commented on the report.

Neither Pakistani official was willing to confirm that bin Laden's son was among the prisoners. And contradictory statements from Iranian officials have done nothing to resolve the question.

"If bin Laden's son was among them, the Americans would have said so but we never heard anything about him from the Americans or the Iranians," said one Pakistani official.

Sunday, a government spokesman in Tehran confirmed a report published in the Financial Times, that bin Laden's son was among the 20 al Qaida suspects deported to what he described as "a neighboring country" two months ago.

"Since they were not holding ID cards, we repatriated them to the country they were coming from," said Abdullah Ramezanzadeh, the Iranian government spokesman, referring to a group of 20 people detained in a border security operation in eastern Iran. He said Iranian authorities later learned that bin Laden's son was among them, but did not say how.

But Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi told the FT a much larger group of people -- 250 in all -- suspected of having links with al Qaida had been deported to their home countries.

Monday, Ramzanzadeh added to the confusion by contradicting his previous statements, saying he was unsure if one of bin Laden's sons was in the group.

"Later we heard gossip that bin Laden's son was among them," he told the student news agency ISNA.

"But none of the people who entered the country had identification papers with them... So from our point of view, recognizing their identities was impossible."

Pakistan's Interior Minister Moinuddin Haider said Monday he had no knowledge of Iran returning one of bin Laden's sons to the country.

Bin Laden has 23 sons but only two of them are believed to be active in al Qaida. Iranian officials did not identify the one they said they had deported to Pakistan.

One of the bin Laden's sons, Saad bin Laden, who is in his 20s, would be of particular interest to U.S. authorities, who believe he is a potential successor to his father as leader of the al Qaida organization.

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© 2002, UPI