Taliban official is captured

Pakistani authorities arrest spokesman near border


KABUL, Afghanistan -- The self-proclaimed Taliban spokesman, known for changing his phone number weekly and making wild claims about purported Taliban attacks, has been arrested in Pakistan, officials said.

Mullah Hakim Latifi, who has served as a roving one-man Taliban press secretary for almost two years, was captured in Baluchistan province, just over the border from southern Afghanistan, Pakistan government spokesman Sheik Rashid Ahmed told reporters in Islamabad.

"It is a big success," Ahmed told the Associated Press. "We were looking for him for a long time."

Ahmed said the government had not decided whether to hand Latifi over to Afghanistan.

The high-profile arrest bolsters the belief of many Afghans that Taliban leaders are hiding out in neighboring Pakistan. Afghan officials welcomed news of the arrest late yesterday but said they have not been able to confirm it.

"We are grateful to hear of his arrest," said presidential spokesman Khaleeq Ahmed. "He's a terrorist who's responsible for claiming the deaths of many innocent civilians, including teachers, doctors, clerics and many people working for the reconstruction of Afghanistan."

He said Afghan officials hoped the arrest would lead to many others. Several former top Taliban leaders remain at large, and many speculate that they are hiding in the tribal areas of Pakistan, a major backer of the Taliban regime until the U.S.-led coalition drove it out of power in late 2001. Pakistani authorities have arrested many members of al-Qaida since then, but top Taliban leaders have remained elusive.

Latifi gained fame only recently. During Taliban rule, he was not a major figure, only leading the culture and information ministry in western Herat province, two former Taliban members said yesterday. Both distanced themselves from Latifi and said they were pleased at the news of his arrest.

"He was not a very popular person during the Taliban," said Mohammed Khaksar, a former deputy interior minister who now supports President Hamid Karzai's government.

"He was like the eyes and tongue of the Taliban," said Abdul Salam Rocketi, a former Taliban military commander and current parliamentary candidate.

Latifi's claims rarely were verifiable, and sometimes his claims just seemed to mirror what was in the news. After a suicide bombing last week, Latifi told some reporters that the bomber had driven a minivan, and he told others that the bomber had attacked an Afghan army training exercise. But the attacker drove a motorbike and hit as soldiers started boarding buses to go home.

"He was a powerful preacher for the Taliban," Khaksar said. "But I don't know how much of his reports were wrong or how many were right."

Kim Barker writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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