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Captive Is Likely a U.S. Citizen, Pentagon Says


WASHINGTON — Pentagon officials said Thursday they are all but certain that a 22-year-old detainee from the Afghan war being held in Cuba is a U.S. citizen, and they are considering turning him over to federal law enforcement authorities.

The captive, identified as Yasser Esam Hamdi, was seized during a late November prison uprising in Afghanistan, as was John Walker Lindh of Northern California.

But while Lindh was readily identified as an American citizen, U.S. military officials have just confirmed that Hamdi was born in November 1979 in Louisiana and then taken as a toddler to Saudi Arabia when his parents returned to their home country.

Officials said it is possible that Hamdi eventually could be flown out of Camp X-Ray at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay and turned over to federal authorities on the U.S. mainland to determine if, like Lindh, he should be prosecuted. Lindh, who fought for the Taliban, is scheduled to stand trial in August on murder conspiracy charges. He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.

While it quickly became clear in Lindh's case that he was a U.S. citizen, authorities were not immediately convinced when Hamdi protested that he too was an American, born in Baton Rouge.

Then the Department of Justice came up with a Louisiana birth certificate with a name and birth date that matched those Hamdi had given.

"It's our understanding that his parents were employed in Louisiana when he was born and returned to Saudi Arabia within a very few years," Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said. "A lot of these things will be worked through. But it does just point to how unconventional this war is in many ways."

As a U.S. citizen, Hamdi would not be subjected to a military tribunal, which could be conducted for other prisoners being held in Cuba and Afghanistan. Rather, because President Bush mandated that no American citizens be tried by military commissions, Hamdi probably would be prosecuted in the federal court system if the Justice Department deems it appropriate.

"We think he will have American citizenship," Clarke said.

But, she added, "it's way too soon to speculate on what he may or may not be charged with. The one thing we can say, [as an] American citizen he would not be considered a candidate for a military commission."

Clarke added that military authorities are continuing with "further questionings and interrogations" of Hamdi.

Bryan Sierra, a Justice Department spokesman, said what lies ahead for Hamdi if he is turned over to the department's jurisdiction is uncertain.

"He's not in our custody and will not be in the immediate future," Sierra said.

In Baton Rouge, some members of the Islamic community said they could not recall the Hamdi family.

"All the guys who are old in this community, and the director of the Islamic Center here, and brothers who are older than me in this community . . . nobody remembers them," said Abed Mubarak, a religious leader.

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