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U.S. plane suspect is from prominent Nigerian family

By Nick Tattersall

LAGOS (Reuters) - A Nigerian charged on Saturday with trying to blow up a U.S. passenger plane is the son of a prominent former banker, a family member said on Saturday, shocking the country's wealthy elite.

The 23-year-old, named by U.S. officials as Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was taken into custody after being overpowered by passengers and crew as the Christmas Day flight approached Detroit from Amsterdam.

Abdul Mutallab, son of prominent former banker Umaru Mutallab, told Reuters the suspect was his brother. He declined to comment further ahead of an expected joint statement by the family and the Nigerian government on Sunday.

Vice President Goodluck Jonathan called a meeting of the country's security chiefs for Sunday to set up an investigative panel and try to find out more about the suspect's background and any links to foreign groups, a presidency source said.

Investigators in the United States are trying to confirm the man's claims that he has connections to al Qaeda.

"(Nigeria's) National Intelligence Agency spoke with his father today," a family friend said on condition of anonymity.

The friend told Reuters Abdulmutallab had attended the British School in Lome, Togo -- a boarding school mostly serving expatriates and students from around West Africa -- before studying engineering at University College London (UCL).

UCL said it had enrolled a student by the name of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab between September 2005 and June 2008, but said it had no evidence that this was the same person.

The family friend said Abdulmutallab had made two trips to Yemen for short Arabic and Islamic courses.

Nigeria's This Day newspaper cited family members as saying Umaru Mutallab had been uncomfortable with his son's "extreme religious views" and had reported him to the U.S. embassy in the capital Abuja and to Nigerian security agencies six months ago.

The newspaper said the son had relocated to Egypt and then Dubai, where he cut family ties, after leaving London.

ELITE SHOCKED

Umaru Mutallab, who is from the northern state of Katsina, retired as chairman of Nigeria's oldest bank, First Bank, earlier this month after a distinguished career in finance.

The news of his son's detention stunned Nigeria's elite.

"I'm very, very shocked. I've not met many perfect gentleman from the north like (Umaru Mutallab). He is a very respected man," said one Nigerian finance professional in the commercial hub Lagos.

Many wealthy Nigerians send their children to boarding schools and universities in Britain or the United States. Those who return for the end-of-year holiday, packing Lagos bars, or to work are a close-knit community dubbed "re-pats."

One friend who knew him in London said Abdulmutallab kept himself to himself and always wore a skullcap, relatively rare among young Nigerian Muslims who usually wear such caps only on religious occasions.

Abdulmutallab was thought to have lived in an apartment in a wealthy central London neighborhood during his time in Britain. British police searched the premises on Saturday, trying to establish details about his activities there.

Africa's most populous nation is roughly equally divided between Christians and Muslims spread across more than 200 ethnic groups.

Nigeria arrested a group of Islamists with suspected links to al Qaeda in 2007 and some Western diplomats have expressed concern that with its huge population, widespread poverty and strategic importance as an oil supplier to the West and to China it could become a target for radical Islamic groups.

But there has been no conclusive evidence of an al Qaeda presence in Nigeria.

(Additional reporting by Camillus Eboh, Felix Onuah and Afolabi Sotunde in Abuja, Sahabi Yahaya in Kaduna and Rosalba O'Brien in London; editing by Andrew Roche)

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