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WASHINGTON (AP) -- Eight people, including four U.S. residents, were charged in a 50-count indictment with supporting, financing and relaying messages for a violent Palestinian terrorist group blamed for the deaths of more than 100 people in and around Israel.
The indictment, returned by a federal grand jury in Tampa, Fla., was unsealed Thursday. It charges that the men are members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, designated by the United States as a terrorist organization. Among them are a Palestinian professor at the University of South Florida, 45-year-old Sami Amin Al-Arian, who is described as the group's U.S. leader and secretary of its worldwide council.
In Florida, Al-Arian was seen being led in handcuffs to FBI headquarters in Tampa after the arrest.
"It's all about politics," Al-Arian told reporters as agents led him inside.
The indictment charges the eight men with operating a criminal racketeering enterprise since 1984 that supported Palestinian Islamic Jihad and with conspiracy to kill and maim people abroad, conspiracy to provide material support to the group, extortion, perjury and other charges.
Each defendant faces up to life in prison if convicted.
Al-Arian and two others were arrested in Tampa and a fourth man was arrested in Chicago. The other four were living abroad and it was not immediately clear if they had been taken into custody.
The group is described in the indictment as rejecting peaceful solutions to the Palestinian quest for a homeland in the Middle East and with embracing "the Jihad solution and the martyrdom style as the only choice for liberation." The group's purpose, prosecutors allege, is to destroy Israel and end all U.S. and Western influence in the region.
Among the 100 people whose killings are blamed on the organization in Israel and the territories are those of two U.S. citizens: Alisa Flatow, 20, and Shoshama Ben-Yishai, 16. The killings included suicide bombings, car bombs and drive-by shootings, most recently a June 5, 2002, suicide attack in Haifa, Israel, that killed 20 and injured 50.
The defendants allegedly provided financial support through a number of U.S.-based entities, resolved internal conflicts, helped communicate claims of responsibility for terrorist actions and made false statements to immigration officials to help terrorists.
Those arrested in the United States Thursday were described as setting up a terrorist cell at the University of South Florida. They are:
--Al-Arian, the Florida college professor the government says ran the Jihad's U.S. operations. Al-Arian is a native of Kuwait and teaches engineering.
--Sameeh Hammoudeh, 42, born in the West Bank, now a resident of Temple Terrace, Fla. He also is an instructor at the University of South Florida and administrator at the Islamic Academy of Florida.
--Hatim Naji Fariz, 30, born in Puerto Rico and now living in Spring Hill, Fla. He is a manager at a medical clinic.
--Ghassan Zayed Ballut, 41, a West Bank native now living in Tinley Park, Ill., and owner of a small business.
Four men who live abroad were also charged. It was not immediately clear if they had been arrested as well. They are:
--Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, 45, a Gaza Strip native and now resident of Damascas, Syria. He is described as the worldwide leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad and is a former instructor at the University of South Florida.
--Bashir Musa Mohammed Nafi, 50, originally from Egypt and now living in Oxfordshire, England. The indictment calls him the United Kingdom leader of the group.
--Mohammed Tasir Hassan Al-Khatib, 46, originally from the Gaza Strip and now living in Beirut; described as the treasurer of the organization.
--Abd AL Aziz Awda, 52, born in Israel and now imam of the Al Qassam Mosque in Gaza Strip. The indictment calls him the founder and "spiritual leader" of the group.
Al-Arian's criminal attorney, Nicholas Matassini, did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.
The office of U.S. Attorney Paul Perez in middle Florida had said last year that Al-Arian was under federal investigation.
"This was disconcerting but not surprising," USF spokesman Michael Reich said of the arrest. He said university President Judy Genshaft will meet with the school's lawyers Thursday to discuss it.
The tenured computer engineering professor was placed on forced leave and banned from campus shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and his subsequent appearance on Fox News Channel. The school also is trying to dismiss him.
He was quizzed about links to known terrorists, and asked about tapes from the late 1980s and early 1990s in which he said "Death to Israel" in Arabic.
Al-Arian has said that he has never advocated violence against others and that his words were a statement against Israeli occupation. He also has consistently denied any connection to terrorists.
The university says that hurt the school's fund-raising efforts and resulted in threats being made against the school.
The university also claimed the professor raised money for terrorist groups, brought terrorists into the United States, and founded organizations that support terrorism.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)