LONDON (Reuters) – An outspoken British-based Muslim cleric who left the country in the wake of a government pledge to crack down on radical Islamists said on Tuesday he had merely gone on holiday and planned to return.
Syrian-born Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed, who has lived in Britain for 20 years, left for Lebanon on Saturday and associates said he would not come back.
Bakri said on Tuesday he had decided to take a short break from Britain because he feared the government was using clerics like him as an excuse to rush in new laws and "put pressure on the Muslim community."
"I decided myself to go on holiday, which is for four or five weeks and stay with my mother back home," he said.
"I am going to return … unless this government says you are not welcome."
Bakri, who used to live in Lebanon and holds Lebanese citizenship, had already said he might leave Britain to avoid retroactive charges under new anti-terrorism measures planned following last month”s attacks on London”s transport system.
The cleric has become a hate figure for the British tabloid press, which has urged the government to rein him in.
"Glad To See Bak Of You," the top-selling Sun daily declared on its front page on Tuesday.
Prime Minister Tony Blair unveiled sweeping measures last Friday to silence or deport extremists even if it meant overriding human rights laws, and said Britain would ban two radical groups from operating in the country.
One of them was the British branch of Hizb ut-Tahrir, which Bakri was involved with.
The other was a successor to al Muhajiroun, to which the cleric was closely linked. That group won notoriety for celebrating the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
Bakri has said he is no longer involved with either organization. He has denied having broken British laws in his sermons, which have included praise for al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Bakri told BBC Radio he knew of no future planned attacks but that even if he did, Islamic law would forbid him from informing the police.
"I did condemn the bombings," he said.