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CIA and FBI agents hunting for al-Qaida militants in the Horn of Africa have been interrogating terrorism suspects from 19 countries held at secret prisons in Ethiopia, which is notorious for torture and abuse, according to an investigation by The Associated Press.
Human rights groups, lawyers and several Western diplomats assert hundreds of prisoners, who include women and children, have been transferred secretly and illegally in recent months from Kenya and Somalia to Ethiopia, where they are kept without charge or access to lawyers and families.
The detainees include at least one US citizen and some are from Canada, Sweden and France, according to a list compiled by a Kenyan Muslim rights group and flight manifests obtained by AP.
Some were swept up by Ethiopian troops that drove a radical Islamist government out of neighboring Somalia late last year. Others have been deported from Kenya, where many Somalis have fled the continuing violence in their homeland.
Ethiopia, which denies holding secret prisoners, is a country with a long history of human rights abuses. In recent years, it has also been a key US ally in the fight against al-Qaida, which has been trying to sink roots among Muslims in the Horn of Africa.
US government officials contacted by AP acknowledged questioning prisoners in Ethiopia. But they said American agents were following the law and were fully justified in their actions because they are investigating past attacks and current threats of terrorism.
The prisoners were never in American custody, said an FBI spokesman, Richard Kolko, who denied the agency would support or be party to illegal arrests. He said US agents were allowed limited access by governments in the Horn of Africa to question prisoners as part of the FBI's counter-terrorism work.
Western security officials told AP that among those held were well-known suspects with strong links to al-Qaida.
But some US allies have expressed consternation at the transfers to the prisons. One Western diplomat in Nairobi, said he sees the United States as playing a guiding role in the operation.
John Sifton, a Human Rights Watch expert on counter-terrorism, went further. He said in an e-mail that the United States has acted as "ringleader" in what he labeled a "decentralized, outsourced Guantanamo."
More than 100 of the detainees were originally arrested in Kenya in January, after almost all of them fled Somalia because of the intervention by Ethiopian troops accompanied by US special forces advisers, according to Kenyan police reports and US military officials.
Those people were then deported in clandestine pre-dawn flights to Somalia, according to the Kenya Muslim Human Rights Forum and airline documents. At least 19 were women and 15 were children.
In Somalia, they were handed over to Ethiopian intelligence officers and secretly flown to Ethiopia, where they are now in detention, the New York-based Human Rights Watch says.
A further 200 people, also captured in Somalia, were mainly Ethiopian rebels who backed the Somali Islamist movement, according to one rights group and a Somali government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not want to jeopardize his job. Those prisoners also were taken to Ethiopia, human rights groups say.
Kenya continues to arrest hundreds of people for illegally crossing over from Somalia. But it is not clear if deportations continue.
The Pentagon announced last week that one Kenyan al-Qaida suspect who fled Somalia, Mohamed Abul Malik, was arrested and flown to the US detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
When contacted by AP, Ethiopian officials denied that they held secret prisoners or that any detainees were questioned by US officials.
"No such kind of secret prisons exist in Ethiopia," said Bereket Simon, special adviser to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. He declined to comment further.
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