11 Mar 2003 11:45 GMT
Did Pakistan stage bin Laden aide arrest?
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.
Rumours 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 authorising 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, NEIGHBOURS 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. Neighbours
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
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
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.
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 organised
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 labelled as terrorists."