Karl Ritter / Associated Press – 2007-04-12 23:24:00
ADDIS ABABA (April 12, 2007) — A Swedish teenager who was imprisoned for weeks with alleged terror suspects in Ethiopia said in an interview published Thursday that Americans in military uniform directed the Kenyan soldiers who took her into custody on the Somali-Kenyan border.
The statements by 17-year-old Safia Benaouda were the first to describe a broader US role in the detentions. Other detainees have said they were taken into custody by Kenyans and transferred to Ethiopia, a US counterterrorism ally.
Benaouda said three men in US uniforms led the Kenyan troops who detained her and other women and children fleeing Somalia on Jan. 18.
“After the American soldiers had detained us they kept in the background, but it was very clear that they were the ones in charge,” Benaouda, who was freed from an Ethiopian prison March 27, was quoted as saying by the Stockholm daily Svenska Dagbladet.
Benaouda did not answer calls from The Associated Press on Thursday. But her mother, Helena Benaouda, told the AP her daughter believed they were US soldiers because of insignia on their uniforms.
“They were American soldiers,” said Helena Benaouda, who heads the Swedish Muslim Council.
Ethiopian officials initially denied any suspects were in custody, but the government later confirmed an AP report that dozens of foreigners were detained as part of an effort to stem terrorism.
US officials, who agreed to discuss the detentions only if not quoted by name because of the sensitivity of the issue, have said Ethiopia had allowed access to US agencies, including the CIA and FBI, but the agencies played no role in arrests, transport or deportation. Ethiopian and Somali officials acknowledge cooperating.
US special operations troops regularly train Kenyan security officers at Kenya’s Manda Bay Naval Station near the Somali border, officials from the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa have said. In a statement Thursday, a task force spokesman directed queries about Kenyan border activities to the Kenyan government. Kenyan officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
American, Kenyan and Ethiopian forces have long been allies in a US counterterrorism effort in the region, whose lawlessness security experts fear al-Qaida and other groups could exploit to create a base. The cooperation appears to have been stepped up in the wake of the collapse of an Islamist regime in Somalia, amid fears al-Qaida suspects linked to the group would flee into Kenya.
In January, the US launched an airstrike on Somalia’s Ras Kamboni, a region near Kenya the US has long suspected was the site of a training camp used by a Somali Islamic group linked to al-Qaida.
Benaouda said she had traveled to Somalia with her fiance, Munir Awad, a Swedish citizen of Lebanese descent. The couple was separated when they tried to leave the country after the Ethiopian military intervention in December.
Benaouda said she was captured along with a group of women and children as they tried to cross into Kenya. The soldiers shot a woman in the group, she told the paper, but didn’t give details.
They were brought to Nairobi and then returned to Somalia, blindfolded and handcuffed, before being transferred to a prison in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, she said. There, she said, she saw her fiance for the first time in weeks.
Awad was among eight terror suspects shown on Ethiopia’s state-run television Tuesday as the country came under mounting pressure over the detention program. Awad and the others said they were being treated humanely.
But Benaouda said she saw her fiance and two other Swedish citizens confined in what looked like “poultry cages with metal roofs” in Ethiopia, and that she was beaten by a prison guard with a stick at one point during her detention. In March, the guards started treating her better and on March 23, she said, she met an official from the Swedish Embassy. Four days later, Benaouda, who is pregnant, was put on a plane home.
The Ethiopian Foreign Affairs Ministry said 29 of the 41 suspects have been ordered released by the Ethiopian government, and that five have been freed. The ministry said only 12 foreign detainees would remain in custody after the next round of releases.
Human rights groups say the detentions are illegal; Ethiopia has denied that.
AP writer Anthony Mitchell in Nairobi, Kenya, contributed to this report.
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