March 11, 2003
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Pakistan Accused of Staging Bin Laden Aide Arrest

Reuters


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March 11

— By Simon Denyer

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - A grainy video purporting to show the arrest of two al Qaeda leaders has done little to deflect accusations that Pakistan may have staged this month's raid to give it leeway to abstain in a U.N. vote on an Iraq war.

On Monday, the powerful military Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) held an unprecedented news conference to show foreign journalists what it said were images of a March 1 raid in Rawalpindi that netted al Qaeda kingpin Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

But few of journalists present were convinced the video -- which did not show Mohammed's face nor any sign of a struggle -- was genuine. Many said it looked like a crude reconstruction.

On Tuesday, a former ISI chief said he believed Mohammed was actually arrested some time ago in a different city.

"They are trying to cover up," Lieutenant-General Hamid Gul told Reuters. "I believe he was arrested before, probably in Karachi."

One intelligence source said Mohammed had been arrested three days before, from the Tench Batta suburb of Rawalpindi.

Rumors of Mohammed's arrest had circulated in Pakistan for months, but were consistently denied.

Gul said news of the arrest appeared to have been leaked at a critical time, just as Pakistan was facing huge U.S. pressure to support a U.N. Security Council vote authorizing war on Iraq.

On Monday night, a senior ruling party official told Reuters the government, under massive domestic pressure to oppose war on a fellow Muslim state, had decided to abstain in the vote, news that shocked British and American diplomats in Islamabad.

The ISI earlier said it had called its first news conference in Pakistan's history to counter criticism in the Western media that it had not done enough in the war on terror.

Gul said the raid may have been staged -- and news of the arrest leaked -- for the same reason, against the backdrop of the U.N. vote.

Gul, who ran the ISI from 1987 to 1989, said the raid was conducted in far too casual a fashion to have been real, with police failing to properly surround or secure the house in a middle-class Rawalpindi suburb.

RELATIVES, NEIGHBORS CONTRADICT AUTHORITIES

Relatives of Ahmed Quddus, the son of the house owner, have maintained he was the only man in the house at the time of the raid. Neighbors said they heard no sound of gunfire -- contradicting the official account, which maintains that Mohammed shot one intelligence agent in the foot with an AK-47 rifle.

Within hours, news of the raid and arrest was leaked to foreign news agencies, something Gul also found incredible.

"He has to be questioned, before you present him to the public eye," he said. "You don't present news like that."

In the video, an ISI officer is seen briefing half a dozen agents about the impending raid -- in English, as opposed to Pakistan's Urdu mother tongue.

Officials explained this was a reconstruction of the original Urdu briefing, but said the rest of the video was genuine.

But many journalists were unconvinced as a calm cameraman shone his lights on the raiding party, and followed agents as they casually broke into the compound and the house, and walked up the stairs.

There was no sign of a struggle -- or of any urgency. The cameramen then focused on the back and neck of the man officials said was Mohammed, before the man was swiftly hooded.

The video has not been released to the media for broadcast.

Mohammed is identified by the United States as the mastermind of the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington. The ISI says the financier of the attacks, Saudi national Ahmed al-Hawsawi, was also arrested in the same raid.

But one Pakistani source said al-Hawsawi had been picked up at least one month before the announcement of his arrest, and that intelligence agents had voiced delight at the time.

On Tuesday, Quddus was remanded in judicial custody for 14 days, and lawyers said his trial could start this month on charges of possessing weapons, resisting arrest and terrorism.

The intelligence source said Quddus' family was suspected of having sent Mohammed food, and Mohammed was said to have visited the house four or five times.

Quddus is the son of an official in the Jamaat-e-Islami party, a key member of a religious alliance that opposes the military-backed government and has organized big street protests against war on Iraq.

Authorities say at least two other al Qaeda suspects have been arrested in houses linked to Jamaat-e-Islami members, but Gul said the party could be the victim of an official campaign to blacken their name.

"Jamaat has never had any contacts with the Arabs (al Qaeda)," said Gul. "They are at loggerheads with U.S. policy...and at this stage it would be an advantage to have them labeled as terrorists."

Copyright 2003 Reuters News Service. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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