| Osama bin Laden's most senior lieutenant, the Egyptian militant
Ayman al-Zawahiri, has been captured and jailed in Tehran, a leading Iranian
newspaper reported yesterday.|
Zawahiri, the founder of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, was arrested several days ago and has been imprisoned in the city's Evin jail, where political prisoners are usually held, the Hayat-e-Nou newspaper said.
If the report is correct, the arrest is the most serious strike at the heart of Bin Laden's al-Qaida network since the World Trade Centre attacks, and a diplomatic coup for Tehran.
The FBI has Zawahiri on its most-wanted list in connection with the August 1998 bombings of two US embassies in east Africa in which 224 people were killed. It has offered a $25m reward for information leading to his capture.
The Farsi-language paper gave few details yesterday about the arrest and no indication of the source of its information. The paper is regarded as reliable and is run by Hadi Khamenei, a leading legislator and the brother of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
But Iran's foreign ministry said last night. "The news that has been published in the Hayat-e-Nou newspaper is not true. We deny it," Hamid Reza Asefi, a foreign ministry spokesman, said.
In Kabul the interim government said many al-Qaida and Taliban fighters had crossed into Iran but it had no information on Zawahiri. "We are not aware that a person of al-Zawahiri's stature has been arrested," foreign ministry spokesman Omar Samad said.
Zawahiri, 50, who wears thick spectacles and a long, dark beard, is regarded as Bin Laden's closest ally. He has been living with him in Afghanistan for several years and often served as his personal doctor. In an interview in June last year, Bin Laden said he had merged Zawahiri's Islamic Jihad with al-Qaida.
In December, Afghan commanders involved in the attacks on Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan said they believed Zawahiri had recently been at the camp. His wife and three daughters were later reported to have died in a US bombing raid, although it was thought Zawahiri was not with them at the time.
Washington has criticised Tehran for allowing al-Qaida and Taliban fighters to slip across its border and Iran was named by George Bush as one of three "axis of evil" countries.