Pakistan agrees in principle to turn over militant

Nation will hold suspect in Pearl's killing until it finishes investigation

February 27, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan agreed in principle to surrender the chief suspect in the killing of Daniel Pearl to the United States, but only after Pakistan concluded its criminal investigation and was confident that the handover would meet legal requirements, Pakistani officials with knowledge of the discussion said last night.

Musharraf made the commitment to Wendy Chamberlin, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan. She reiterated a request that has been on the table since November for the transfer of Ahmad Omar Saeed Sheikh, also known as Sheik Omar Saeed, the British-born Islamic militant who is the main suspect in the kidnapping and killing of Pearl, 38, a foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal.

It is not clear how long it will take to satisfy Musharraf's conditions.

Last night, in another episode that demonstrates how difficult it will be for Musharraf to succeed in curbing the country's militant groups, unidentified gunmen wielding automatic weapons shot and killed nine people and wounded more than 10 others in an attack on a Shiite mosque in Rawalpindi. The city, less than 20 miles from the capital, is the headquarters for Pakistan's army.

Police there said they believed that the attack had been carried out by a Sunni Muslim group known as the Army of the Prophet's Companions, one of the militant groups that Musharraf outlawed last month.

The attack was the worst episode of sectarian violence in Pakistan since the crisis in the region began, and the fact that it took place near the army headquarters is interpreted by some Pakistani officials as an attempt to demonstrate to Musharraf that his power to curb extremism is limited.

The Pakistani officials who discussed the general's meeting with Chamberlin yesterday said they had little doubt that Saeed would eventually be turned over to U.S. authorities for prosecution in the case of Pearl and in the kidnapping of four Westerners, including one American, in India in 1994.

Saeed was secretly indicted by a grand jury in Washington last November for his role in the 1994 kidnapping.

On at least two occasions before Pearl's kidnapping Jan. 23, the United States formally asked that Saeed be arrested. Pakistani officials essentially ignored those requests.

The failure to locate and arrest him before Pearl was abducted has the potential to weigh down relations between the two countries, especially given indications that Saeed, who was released into Afghanistan in 1999, has benefited since from ties to Pakistan's secret intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence.

The White House said Monday that it wanted Saeed in U.S. hands.

Yesterday, both sides seemed to be trying to patch over the appearance of a rift. A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy here, Mark Wentworth, said only that Chamberlin had "raised the subject" of extradition in her meeting with Musharraf.

The Pakistani officials who described the meeting said Chamberlin had told Musharraf that she understood Pakistan's position.

It is not clear what legal requirements Musharraf was referring to in naming factors that might delay a handover, the Pakistani officials said.

The United States and Pakistan do not have an extradition treaty. In the past, Pakistan has handed over terrorism suspects to the United States without a formal hearing. But this case might prove more complicated because Saeed is in Pakistani custody and facing court proceedings.

Yesterday, Saeed, 28, made an unexpected appearance in a Karachi antiterrorism court for a hearing. For the first time since Saeed's arrest this month, the court heard from a witness in the case, whose testimony was intended to link the militant to Pearl's killing.

Saeed announced in a previous hearing that he had carried out the kidnapping, but that confession has no bearing under Pakistani law and the authorities here have been slow to build a legal case against him. They asked a judge Monday for 14 more days to file charges in the hope of finding Pearl's body or a weapon used in his killing.

Pearl's death and Pakistan's previous unwillingness to act against the main suspect have emerged as a significant embarrassment and raised new questions about the domestic constraints Musharraf faces.

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