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German court clears 911 suspect

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German court clears 9/11 suspect

HAMBURG, Germany (CNN) --A Moroccan man accused of assisting the September 11 hijackers has been cleared by a court in the German city of Hamburg due to a lack of evidence.

Abdel-Ghani Mzoudi was charged with more than 3,000 counts of accessory to murder, based on the death toll in the suicide hijackings in the U.S, and being a member of a terrorist organisation, the Hamburg cell of al Qaeda.

The 31-year-old had faced up to 15 years in jail if convicted by the five-judge panel.

The court declared a verdict Thursday despite a last-minute request by lawyers for victims' families to delay it, citing alleged new evidence linked to the case of accused September 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui in the United States.

Defense lawyers said Mzoudi had spent time at an al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan in 2000 and knew Hamburg cell members while they lived in the city, but denied he was involved in the 9/11 plot.

German prosecutors had expected the acquittal because of a lack of evidence but continued to insist the accused was guilty. They could still appeal against the verdict to a higher court.

"For us it is clear Mzoudi is part of the Islamistic scene in Hamburg," Heino Vahldieck, chief of the Hamburg Federal Criminal Office, told CNN. "He has been part of the scene, he is still part of the scene."

Terror experts are worried the case demonstrates the West is ill equipped to defend itself.

"It is a war. In a war situation you need special laws and al Qaeda finds that it can operate wonderfully well in the democratic free society because they can move about freely and the courts cannot convict them," M. J. Gohel of the Asia Pacific Foundation told CNN.

Lawyers for Mzoudi, who wants to return to study electrical engineering in Hamburg, said before the acquittal his problems would remain whether or not he was freed.

They said he was afraid German authorities could deport him to Morocco where U.S. agents could try to snatch him. Mzoudi is also aware, they say, of rumors that al Qaeda might try to liquidate him to ensure he never talks.

In Germany's other 9/11 case, Mzoudi's friend and fellow-Moroccan Mounir el Motassadeq was sentenced to 15 years in jail by the same Hamburg court last February. He is awaiting a ruling on an appeal. (Full story)

Meanwhile, after resisting the idea for months, the White House has granted an extension to U.S. lawmakers investigating the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Sources say the Bush administration had long opposed the move, fearing a negative judgment on the eve of the presidential election. (Full story)

-- CNN Senior International Correspondent Walter Rodgers contributed to this report

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