Pakistan fears alliance by radical groups

Ambush of police bus is linked to the militants

March 01, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - At least four radical Islamic groups, including one believed responsible for the killing of an American journalist, appear to have formed an alliance to mount attacks and resist a government ban against them, Pakistani officials said yesterday.

They said an attack by masked men on a police bus yesterday in Karachi, in which one officer was killed, was apparently a failed attempt by members of the alliance to free about 20 comrades who were being returned to jail from court and had been arrested as part of a widening government crackdown.

Pakistani officials said they believed, based on "hard information," that additional attacks were being planned by the group responsible for the kidnapping and killing of journalist Daniel Pearl.

The main suspect in the killing, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, was a leader of the Army of Muhammad, or Jaish-e-Muhammad, one of the four groups that the officials said are believed to have joined forces.

In another sign of rising confrontation with the militants, police in Karachi moved Saeed to a secure location yesterday after a threat of a rocket attack on his jail if Pakistan agreed to hand him over to the United States.

At least three senior law enforcement officials in Karachi who have been leading the investigation into the killing of Pearl have received death threats and are being provided with additional security, Pakistani officials said.

The recent tide of violence and word of the alliance point to the continuing pressures facing Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who over the past six months has led Pakistan on a precarious course of cooperation with the United States and has pledged to strip his country of militants.

Militant Islamic groups in Pakistan have provided support to one another in the past, but an alliance that could include coordinated attacks would pose a new level of challenge to Pakistani authorities, who have been trying to head off a drift toward lawlessness.

The other groups believed by Pakistani intelligence officials to have formed the alliance are Sipah-e-Sahaba, Harkat ul-Mujahedeen, and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, all banned by Musharraf as part of his promised crackdown.

The Pakistani police arrested dozens of activists yesterday from the banned groups, all of which are listed by the United States as terrorist organizations.

Officials said those picked up were on a new list of about 90 militants to be arrested, on top of about 2,000 arrested in the initial phase of the crackdown, which began after the Jan. 12 speech by Musharraf pledging an all-out anti-terrorist campaign.

But the response from militants appears to be bringing lawlessness closer, the freshest sign of which came with the ambush yesterday of the police bus, which also left a prisoner dead, and five police officers, three prisoners and a bystander injured, police in Karachi said. None of the prisoners was freed, but the attackers escaped unharmed, police said.

The ambush came a week after Pearl's murder was confirmed and just days after 12 worshippers were killed by assailants wielding automatic weapons who stormed a Shiite mosque in the city of Rawalpindi, the headquarters for Pakistan's army.

Late Wednesday, the United States announced a $5 million reward for information leading to the conviction of Pearl's killers. As word of the reward circulated yesterday, Pakistani officials said they hoped it might give a boost to their hunt for accomplices of Saeed.

They said that new information had raised concern that at least some of Saeed's accomplices might be planning new attacks.

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