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Agents question whether airliner-bomb suspect had help

By Naomi R. Patton and Ben Schmitt

McClatchy Newspapers

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 30 2009 12:00 a.m. MST

DETROIT — U.S. federal agents and Dutch counterterrorism officials are investigating whether a second man helped the Nigerian bombing suspect get on the flight to Detroit on Christmas without a passport, as a man from Newport, Mich., said he saw before he boarded the flight.

Lori Haskell said that FBI agents spoke with her and her husband, Kurt, Tuesday morning after the two spoke to news media outlets about Kurt Haskell's account that he saw an older, well-dressed Indian man help suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in his effort to board the flight in Amsterdam, Netherlands, without a passport.

The Reuters news service reported Tuesday that Dutch military police and Holland's national counterterrorism agency NCTb were reviewing closed-circuit video and any other evidence that might corroborate Kurt Haskell's account.

Sandra Berchtold, an FBI spokeswoman in Detroit, referred all news media inquiries to the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. A spokesman there declined comment.

Lori Haskell said she was questioned for about 10 minutes and recognized a photo of the suspect from several that agents showed her. She said her husband was interviewed for at least an hour.

Kurt Haskell, 38, told the Detroit Free Press he first noticed Abdulmutallab at the airline ticket counter in Amsterdam.

"He caught my eye because of who he was traveling with": a wealthy looking well-dressed Indian man in his 50s.

The Indian man, Haskell said, told the ticket agent that the younger man "needs to board the plane, but he doesn't have a passport. ... He's from Sudan. We do this all the time."

Abdulmutallab is actually from Nigeria and was traveling on a visa, American authorities confirmed Tuesday. According to Kurt Haskell, the ticket agent told the older man he would have to speak with a manager, and was directed to another area to speak to one.

Lori Haskell said she did not witness the alleged exchange or see the people involved because she was too busy trying to beat her husband at a card game.

Once on board, sitting in seats 27H and 27J, the Haskells said they saw the smoke and flames when Abdulmutallab allegedly attempted to detonate a powdered substance from row 19.

"Every passenger on that flight was interviewed by authorities," U.S. Attorney Terrence Berg said Tuesday. "Certainly the statements of all the passengers are taken seriously." He declined further comment.

Susan Chana Elliott, a spokeswoman for Delta, would not comment on Kurt Haskell's account. Northwest is a subsidiary of Delta.

Elliott said Delta airlines staff followed procedure in fully reporting passenger information before the plane took off, and "Delta is in full compliance with all government regulations regarding passenger information transmission."

Elliott added that she could not confirm that a male Sudanese refugee was on Flight 253 on Friday.

Michael Wildes, a Manhattan-based immigration attorney and a former federal prosecutor out of Brooklyn, said the allegations of Abdulmutallab boarding without a passport are disturbing.

"The truth is that post-9/11, we are still shocked at some of the practices that flights and airlines permit," he said. "Clearly, if the airline wanted to bring him in without a passport, they would be accountable to the government."

Only U.S. citizens can board international flights to the United States without passports — but only after the air carrier otherwise confirms their identity and citizenship, said Chief Ron Smith, spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Patrol in Detroit.

Smith added that a refugee trying to fly to the United States from another country would also have to have proof of an application for asylum or refugee status, proof of citizenship and identifying documents before the plane could take off.

Smith said that, had there been a Sudanese refugee on the plane, "We would be aware of it."

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