Switzerland's Ministry of Justice has confirmed that the US has formally asked for judicial assistance from Swiss authorities for its investigation into the September 11 terror attacks on New York and Washington.
A spokeswoman for the ministry, Adrienne Lotz, confirmed a report that the US request for judicial assistance had arrived last Friday and had already been approved.
"We are working on it," Lotz said, "but in the interest of the inquiries both in the US and in Switzerland no further details can be given to the media."
Nobody at the US embassy in the Swiss capital, Bern, which would have processed the request, was available for comment on Tuesday.
Asked if the US request covered areas and suspects that the Swiss have started to investigate on their own after the attacks, or whether it directed the Swiss investigation into new directions, Lotz repeated, "no comment". She said, however, that Washington had asked Switzerland to take concrete measures against named persons and institutions, as was normal in such cases.
Prosecutor approved task force
The Swiss Federal Prosecutor had initiated a "US attacks" task force of federal and cantonal police units in the days after September 11 to lead the investigations in Switzerland.
According to reports in the Swiss media over the past 10 days, the request for Swiss help could be directed against the alleged financial network of Washington's prime suspect in the attacks, Osama bin Laden, and his al-Qaida organisation, as well as other organisations possibly linked to al-Qaida.
Swiss authorities confirmed last week that they had frozen a bank account that could be linked to the attacks. According to "Blick", a Zurich-based daily, a second account was frozen over the weekend. It is unknown in whose name(s) the accounts are being held.
Another lead could be to Al Taqwa Management Organization, a trade and services company based in the Swiss city of Lugano, and with offices in the off-shore centres of Malta and the Bahamas. Swiss media reported that Al Taqwa's ties were being investigated.
Links to extremist groups denied
Al Taqwa's owner, Youssef Nada, has denied the allegations, as well as possible links to extremist Islamic groups.
A spokesman in the Ministry of Finance, Dieter Leutwyler, confirmed a report in the Zurich-based Sunday weekly, "Sonntags-Zeitung", that Switzerland's Money Laundering Control Authority last week requested Al Taqwa to submit a detailed report on their areas of commercial operations within 20 days.
If the activities were seen to include banking or financial transactions, Al Taqwa would have to cease operations and be faced with sanctions because it failed to comply with Switzerland's financial market regulations. Leutwyler, however, emphasised that, at this stage, these were no more than speculations.
Al Taqwa had been certified by the Swiss Federal Banking Commission last year to be neither a bank nor a financial intermediary - in other words, to fall outside the country's money laundering control mechanisms. But reports in "Blick" and other Swiss media, allegedly based on foreign secret service reports, suggested last week that "millions" of bin Laden's funds had been moved through Al Taqwa.
Other possible areas covered by the US request for judicial assistance could concern "sleepers", i.e. suspected members of the terrorist network who are or have been waiting to be "activated" while residing in Switzerland. At least on of the suspected hijackers of flight American Airlines 11, which crashed into the WTC, had passed through Zurich in recent times.
Swiss authorities are also investigating the possibility that terrorists made millions of US Dollars with their insider knowledge of the impending disaster using Switzerland's financial market among others. It could not be ascertained if the US request for judicial assistance covers these suspected market activities as well.
swissinfo with agencies