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Navy ships searching for al Qaeda in Arabian Sea

By David Ensor

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. Navy ships in the northern Arabian Sea are "querying" ships leaving Pakistani ports by radio, as part of a search for al Qaeda members who may be trying to flee the area, Navy officials said Friday.

In the ports, passenger and crew manifests are being checked by U.S. military and intelligence officials in cooperation with local Pakistani authorities, officials said. Cargo records are also being checked closely.

A senior official said he was not aware of any ships that had been boarded by U.S. sailors, but "we remain ready to do so." The official added that any suspicious ship refusing to stop on request by the U.S. Navy, "could be fired upon."

Several shipping companies are owned or managed by people with ties to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network, according to U.S. intelligence officials.

U.S. and Norwegian officials have compiled a list of ships and smaller vessels that may fit that description. "There aren't many," said one official.

One news report suggesting there could be 23 merchant ships owned or controlled by al Qaeda was "overstated," a U.S. official said.

In recent years, U.S. officials said, al Qaeda has used small, older freighters, fishing boats, Arab sailing boats known as dhows and yachts to transport supplies, weapons and people around Southwest Asia, North Africa and the Middle East.

In the 1990s there were intelligence reports that bin Laden owned three ships, U.S. officials said. One of the ships subsequently sank, a second was sold, and the evidence that bin Laden owned the third is now considered unreliable, officials said.


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