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Federal judge in New York asked to appoint lawyer for al-Liby

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Federal defenders in New York have asked a judge to appoint a lawyer for a senior al Qaeda figure captured in Libya last weekend, the latest indication that he may eventually be brought to New York City for trial in a civilian court.

A U.S. official familiar with the situation, however, warned on Thursday that there is no timeframe set for bringing Nazih al-Ragye, better known as Abu Anas al-Liby, to the United States.

Al-Liby, a suspect in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 civilians, is being held aboard a Navy ship in the Mediterranean where he has been questioned by American interrogators.

In a letter to U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan in Manhattan filed on Thursday, the Federal Defenders of New York's executive director David Patton requested that counsel be appointed for al-Liby.

Kaplan has overseen several cases involving the bombings, including the criminal indictment against al-Liby and numerous other defendants, which was filed in 2001.

"Mr. al-Liby is a defendant in an indicted case before this court," Patton wrote. "I am not aware of any lawful basis for the delay in his appearance and the appointment of counsel."

In response, however, the U.S. Attorney's office in Manhattan said that appointing a lawyer before his first court appearance would be premature.

"As in any case, when and if the defendant appears in federal court, he may, supported by an appropriate financial affidavit, apply for appointment of counsel," Assistant U.S. Attorneys Nicholas Lewin and Sean Buckley wrote in a letter to the judge.

Government officials have been careful to say no decision has been reached on whether al-Liby will be tried in civilian or military court, though legal experts expect him to be brought to New York at some point to face a trial in federal court.

Experts have said there are few legal constraints on the amount of time the U.S. can hold al-Liby on the ship. The official familiar with the situation said al-Liby was "still of value," implying that interrogators believe he will produce useful intelligence under questioning aboard the ship.

(Reporting by Mark Hosenball and Joseph Ax; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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