Tehran, Iran Iran announced Wednesday it was holding senior members of the al-Qaida terror network and would hunt down any others on its soil, while the United States demanded it turn over any prisoners to face justice.
Tehran's announcement came just days after President Bush accused it of harboring terrorists. Iran's government has long said al-Qaida operatives were in its prisons, but this was the first word that some prisoners held high positions in Osama bin Laden's terror network -- blamed for the Sept. 11 attacks and for suicide bombings this year at Western housing complexes in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.
"A large number of small- and big-time elements of al-Qaida are in our custody," Intelligence Minister Ali Yunesi told reporters.
He did not identify any of the detainees or comment on media reports that Iran holds al-Qaida's No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahri, the group's spokesman Suleiman Abu Ghaith, or its security chief Saif al-Adil.
The Bush administration said it could not confirm Yunesi's comments and questioned whether al-Qaida members in Iran were in prison or being harbored by the government.
Still, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said "the statements would appear to confirm what we and others believe to be a significant al-Qaida presence in Iran to include members of its senior membership."
"These terrorists, we've made very clear, must be brought to justice," McClellan said.
U.S. officials have said intelligence suggests that senior al-Qaida figures and associates in Iran include some of the leading al-Qaida operatives at large: Saif al-Adil, possibly connected to the May 12 bombings in Riyadh; Abu Mohamed al-Masri, wanted in connection with the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in East Africa; Abu Musab Zarqawi, the U.S. administration's key alleged link between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein; and Osama bin Laden's son Saad.
U.S. counterterrorism officials doubt press reports that al-Zawahri is in Iran, saying they believe he is with bin Laden somewhere along the Afghan-Pakistani border. Officials have not commented on whether they believed Abu Ghaith, al-Qaida's spokesman, was in Iran.
The White House on Monday repeated its accusations that Iran and Syria harbored terrorists, a charge both countries deny.