ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, AP
In yet another blow to al-Qaida, officials in the United Arab Emirates captured and turned over to Pakistan a senior operative in Osama bin Laden’s terror network, the information minister said Sunday, flying him secretly to the eastern city of Lahore for interrogation.
The man, Qari Saifullah Akhtar, used to run a vast terror camp in Rishkhor, Afghanistan which was visited by bin Laden and Taliban chief Mullah Mohammed Omar, and where 3,500 men learned combat skills, including assassination and kidnapping.
Akhtar melted away in the hours before U.S. bombing began in October 2001, and had not been heard from since.
“Yes we can confirm that we have Qari Saifullah,” Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed told The Associated Press. He said Akhtar had been arrested in Dubai “in the past week” and had been turned over to Pakistan, but he would not give any details into the raid. Officials in Dubai had no comment.
A Pakistani intelligence official said on condition of anonymity that Akhtar was being held in Lahore, where he was undergoing interrogation.
In Washington, the head of the White House’s office of counter-terrorism said Akhtar’s arrest was significant, and that he was believed involved in two attempts in December to assassinate President Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
The arrest is “very important, particularly for Pakistan,” Fran Townsend said on “Fox News Sunday.” “He’s wanted in connection with the two assassination attempts on President Musharraf. He was also involved in the training camps in Afghanistan.”
Asked if Akhtar is thought to be someone who’s currently operational, Townsend said, “Absolutely. Absolutely.”
Ahmed, the information minister, said it was “premature” to say that Akhtar was involved in the assassination attempts.
Akhtar is said to have been active in several Kashmiri militant groups, including the Harakat-ul-Jehad-e Islami, whose Muslim fighters have fought as far afield as Chechnya and Bosnia.
“He had a hand in various cases,” Ahmed said of Akhtar, without giving any details.
Pakistan’s Geo television reported Sunday that authorities had arrested another Kashmiri militant, Maulana Fazl-ur Rahman Khalil, on charges that he was sending militants to Afghanistan to join the Taliban insurgency there.
Khalil is said to be the leader of Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen, a group linked to Harakat-ul-Jehad-e-Islami and one of several Kashmiri militant groups banned by President Gen. Pervez Musharraf for its alleged ties to al-Qaida. He helped organize a secret trip by about a dozen Pakistani journalists to interview bin Laden in Khost, Afghanistan in 1998, one of the last interviews granted by the terror chief.