Pakistan arrest backs al-Qaida connection

Scope of plot


KARACHI, Pakistan -- The scope of a trans-Atlantic terror plot grew yesterday when Pakistani authorities said they had arrested at least nine people in connection with the alleged conspiracy and that one of them had admitted meeting with the reputed head of the al-Qaida in Pakistan organization.

The link to Matiur Rehman, Pakistan's most-wanted terrorist, was the strongest indication yet that al-Qaida might have been involved in the alleged plot to blow up passenger jets, although some intelligence analysts have cautioned that any ties might be informal.

"The Pakistan connection appears to be falling into place," said one U.S. intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity. He added that any link to al-Qaida "appears to be more clearly apparent today."

British authorities arrested 24 people on Thursday, most of them Britons of Pakistani descent, and said the arrests had foiled a plot to bring liquid explosives onto as many as 10 U.S.-bound airliners and detonate them over the Atlantic Ocean. One was released without charges yesterday, while police applied for judicial permission to keep 22 of the others in custody until Wednesday, and one until Monday.

Pakistani authorities said the crucial break in the case came in recent days when they arrested Rashid Rauf, one of two British citizens of Pakistani origin who were arrested at about the same time. Rauf was described as a close relative of Tayib Rauf, 22, of Birmingham, England, who was among the men arrested in Britain on Thursday. British press reports described the two as brothers, but that could not be confirmed.

During questioning, Rauf revealed details of the plot to use items smuggled onto airplanes in hand luggage to build bombs and bring the aircraft down, according to the Pakistani officials, who spoke only on condition of anonymity. They said the information was immediately shared with the British security services. Rauf remains in custody in Pakistan, the sources said.

Pakistan's press attache in Washington, Akram Shaheedi, said Rauf was arrested on or about Wednesday as a result of a tip from British authorities. He described Rauf as being the key person among the alleged conspirators arrested in Pakistan.

Shaheedi also said that the plot clearly involved operatives outside of Pakistan and Britain. "There are indications of Afghanistan-based al-Qaida connections," Shaheedi said. "The case has wider international dimensions."

In another indication of the international nature of the investigation, the Italian Interior Ministry announced the arrests of 40 people in a security crackdown related to the foiled bomb plot in Britain.

The arrests at "Islamic gathering spots," including telephone call centers, money transfer businesses and Internet cafes, were carried out in 14 cities across Italy on Wednesday and Thursday, the ministry said in a statement. Most of those taken into custody were arrested for violating residency regulations.

The arrests were part of "an extraordinary operation that followed the British anti-terrorism operation," the statement said.

Working with Belgian police, the Italian authorities also raided 15 homes and offices of people, most of them Pakistani nationals, as part of an investigation into the financing of Lashkar-e-Toiba, an outlawed Islamic organization.

In Pakistan, officials said Rauf had been under surveillance for six months, with his telephone calls and Internet communications monitored.

A British anti-terrorism official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said Rauf had been in touch with the suspects arrested in Britain. The official described Rauf as a significant figure, but not necessarily the leader of the alleged plot.

"There was a lot of traffic of communications between him and the people here," the British official said in London. "But I wouldn't say that he was the mastermind."

Rauf admitted under interrogation that he had met the wanted terrorism suspect Rehman, a senior Interior Ministry official said in Islamabad.

The official described Rehman as al-Qaida's new chief in Pakistan, after the arrests of the organization's local leaders.

Rehman is ranked No. 1 among 166 terrorism suspects in a "Red Book" of suspected terrorists compiled by Pakistani intelligence agencies and made available to the Los Angeles Times.

He is wanted in an assassination attempt on Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, in December 2003 and one on Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz in 2004. Pakistan had offered a $1.7 million reward for his capture.

Interior Secretary Syed Kamal Shah, who oversees law enforcement agencies in Pakistan, said in an interview that Rauf was arrested in Punjab province, a hotbed of militant activity.

He added that Rauf, who holds British and Pakistani citizenships, was born and raised in London, where he still maintains a home.

"Right now, I can only say that he was a very important man in the plot," Shah said.

Besides the two Britons arrested earlier in the week, Pakistani officials said they had arrested seven people yesterday in different parts of the country, including three who were arrested at the airport in the capital city of Islamabad. The sources did not identify the men or reveal their destinations.

Paul Watson and Mitchell Landsberg write for the Los Angeles Times.

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