TEHRAN, 28 Oct. (IPS) The Islamic Republic rejected Tuesday American demand to extradite members of the terrorist al-Qa’eda organisation it says are in its custody, stressing that in case their nationalities are not determined, they would be tried in Iran itself.

Earlier on the week Mr. Colin Powell, the United States Secretary of State had urged Tehran to hand over to American courts the al-Qa’eda operatives held by Iran or be turned to their countries of origin.

Mr. Powell made the demand after Iran announced on Sunday that it had provided the United Nations the names of 225 people suspected of being members of al-Qa’eda, the organisation believed to have masterminded the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington, changing the face of the world’s politics and economy.

Describing Mr. Powell’s demand as "irrelevant", Iranian Foreign Affairs Ministry senior spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said Iran would not extradite these people to the United States, stressing that the two countries had no formal diplomatic relations.

"The al-Qa’eda operatives currently in our custody have committed crimes in Iran and they would be either tried here or be send to their country of origin", he added, quoted by Tehran radio.

As usual, the Iraqi-born Asefi did not say how many alleged terrorists were in Iranian prisons and reiterated that Iran would not reveal the number and names of them for security reasons.

Powell had indicated that Washington was seeking clarification of the information Iran had provided to the United Nations.

U.S. intelligence suggests that al-Qa’eda figures in Iran include Saif al-Adl, a top al-Qa’eda agent possibly connected to May bombings in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; Abu Mohammed al-Masri, wanted in connection with the bombings of two U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998; Abu Musab Zarqawi, whom some U.S. officials describe as the key link between al-Qaida and toppled Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein ; and Osama Ben Laden's eldest son, Sa’ad, the American news agency Associated Press said.

American counter-terrorism officials said last week that a handful of senior al-Qa’eda operatives who fled to Iran after the war in Afghanistan two years ago may have developed a working relationship with a secretive military unit linked to Iran's religious hard-liners.

"But the U.S. government is not certain of the extent of any contacts with the Iranian unit, called the Qods Force", the agency quoted an American official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The al-Qaida operatives are believed to have fled to Iran from neighbouring Pakistan and Afghanistan after the fall of the former Taleban regime of Afghanistan under massive American bombardment in 2001.

According to Mr. Asefi, Iran has also informed the United Nations Security Council about 2,300 people who entered Iran from Pakistan and Afghanistan between October 2002 and July 2003, adding that most of them were deported back to Pakistan. ENDS IRAN ALQA’EDA 281003