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French terror suspect has checkered past

By
ELIZABETH BRYANT, United Press International

PARIS, Dec. 12 (UPI) -- The first person indicted on charges directly related to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States has written his mother saying he has proof he was not involved in the plot.

One day after U.S. authorities announced Zacarias Moussaoui was named in six conspiracy counts by a federal grand jury, a French newspaper on Wednesday published an interview with the suspect's mother, who said she had received a letter from her son, denying the terrorism charges.

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"Zacarias warned me in his letter they would fabricate evidence and produce witnesses against him," Aisha Moussaoui told Le Parisien newspaper. "In that case, how to prove the opposite? Because my son explained he also had proof (to the contrary)."

Born to Moroccan parents in the southwestern Basque town of St. Jean de Luz, Moussaoui reportedly had an unremarkable childhood. He graduated from high school with a technical diploma. He left for London soon after, ostensibly to learn English.

It was there, according to French and British news reports, he became drawn to Islamist extremists, and later to the al Qaida network of Osama bin Laden.

In earlier interviews, Moussaoui's mother described her son as a kind person, who was incapable of lying. But others have different recollections. During his last visit to southern France in 1997, Moussaoui reportedly got into a violent dispute with an Islamic cleric, who accused him of indoctrinating others with false beliefs.

More seriously, French police have long suspected Moussaoui of helping finance Algerian extremist groups while in London, according to French news reports. And earlier, Le Monde newspaper reported French antiterrorist police warned their U.S. counterparts in early September about Moussaoui's alleged al Qaida ties. Al Qaida is the suspected terrorist network linked to bin Laden, the man U.S. authorities say was the mastermind behind the Sept. 11 attacks.

The indictment against Moussaoui was announced Tuesday, three months to the day after four U.S. jetliners were hijacked. Three of the aircraft were flown into buildings -- two into the towers of the World Trade Center in New York and the other into the Pentagon. The fourth crashed in western Pennsylvania when passengers tried to retake control of the jet. More than 3,000 people died in the attacks.

Three of the planes each had five hijackers aboard and the other had four. U.S. investigators say the only reason Moussaoui, considered to be the 20th hijacker, was absent from the execution of the plan was that he was arrested in August for immigration violations. He grabbed the attention of flight-school instructors, who called authorities after Moussaoui said he was not interested in taking off or landing, but just turning a flying aircraft.

Attorney General John Ashcroft announced the indictment before heading to Europe to convince officials there to extradite terrorism suspects to the Untied States, even though charges the suspects could face might carry the death penalty. During a Wednesday interview with Radio Monte Carlo, French Justice Minister Marylise Lebranchu said Moussaoui would benefit from French consular help and "should not be executed" if he is found guilty.

However, a French foreign ministy spokesman said Wednesday that Moussaoui has not "to our knowledge" accepted French consular protection.

France, which abolished the death penalty two decades ago, frequently criticizes U.S. death sentences. On Tuesday, French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine also criticized the Bush administration's plans for military tribunals to judge terrorist leaders.

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