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Colombia has dismantled a false passport ring with links to al-Qaida and Hamas members, the acting attorney general said after authorities led dozens of simultaneous raids across five cities in collaboration with US officials.
In Washington, however, Justice and Homeland Security officials were surprised by the announcement Thursday of the investigation, which they said involved people posing as members of Colombia's largest rebel army, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC - not al-Qaida or Hamas.
Colombian officials said the gang allegedly supplied an unknown number of citizens from Pakistan, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt and other countries with false passports and Colombian nationality without them ever setting foot in the country.
An undisclosed number of those arrested are wanted for working with the al-Qaida terror network and the Hamas, said acting Attorney General Jorge Armando Otalora.
The counterfeit Colombian, Spanish, Portugese and German passports were used to enter the United States and Europe, he said.
But Justice Department spokesman Bryan Sierra said an indictment unsealed Wednesday in Miami charges 10 foreign nationals with smuggling "people that they thought were members of FARC into the United States."
"We are not alleging any connections to any terror organization other than the FARC," said Justice Department spokesman Bryan Sierra.
He said the US will seek to extradite the 10 alleged smugglers, of whom eight have been arrested.
"The operation was, in fact, a sting operation led by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement," he said, adding that Colombian law enforcement were "an active and critical part" of the investigation
The Colombian attorney general's office said 19 people were arrested in Thursday's raids, adding they were carried out in collaboration with US authorities.
Four Jordanian citizens were among those arrested, Manuel Saenz, head of foreign immigration for the DAS secret police, said on Caracol television. Eight people are being sought inside the United States for extradition to Colombia, Otalora said.
Colombian authorities began to covertly trail and film suspects to unveil a criminal network with the help of their US counterparts.
The eight wanted by federal authorities in Florida on charges of abetting illegal immigration rings and collaborating with terrorist groups include a Jordanian national and a DAS detective, Colombian authorities said.
Colombian officials didn't say if they believed any Colombian terrorist groups were involved in the scheme.
US officials have long feared al-Qaida could take advantage of corrupt government officials and weak institutions to launch an attack from south of the border.