March 2, 2003
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(Reuters Photo)
U.S., Pakistan Question Sept. 11 Mastermind Suspect

Reuters


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— By Tahir Ikram and David Brunnstrom

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - After a decade on the run, the suspected mastermind of the September 11 attacks was being interrogated by U.S. and Pakistani agents on Sunday after what Washington called the biggest catch so far in the war on terror.

Pakistan said its agents arrested Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, described by U.S. officials as one of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden's "most senior and significant lieutenants," and two other al Qaeda suspects at a house in Rawalpindi early on Saturday.

Rashid Qureshi, spokesman for Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, said Mohammed was still in Pakistan being jointly questioned by Pakistani and U.S. agents.

Earlier, a government official who did not want to be identified said Khalid had been handed over to U.S. custody shortly after his arrest, along with the two other suspects.

Interior Minister Faisal Saleh Hayat denied this:

"Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is in the custody of Pakistan's law enforcement agencies and until we have satisfied ourselves, after the interrogation process, of the nature of his activities in Pakistan, there is no question of handing him over to anyone," he said.

"Only when Khalid's country approaches us and makes a formal request for his extradition, only then will the Pakistani government hand him over."

But Information Minister Sheikh Rashid said he could "give no guarantee (Mohammed) still will be in Pakistan tomorrow."

Qureshi said the fate of Mohammed, born in Kuwait in 1965 of parents from Pakistan, would depend on the interrogation.

"The procedure is that whenever a foreigner is caught for suspected links to al Qaeda, a joint team questions him so that both sides can coordinate with each other," he said.

MAY KNOW BIN LADEN'S WHEREABOUTS

Analysts described Mohammed as a pivotal figure in al Qaeda who planned its operations, vetted all its recruits and may know the whereabouts of both bin Laden and Mullah Mohammed Omar, fugitive leader of Afghanistan's former Taliban government.

The United States, under criticism for failing to arrest the top leaders of al Qaeda while focusing on a possible war on Iraq, was elated by news of Khalid's arrest.

It claimed joint credit and described Khalid as "a key al Qaeda planner and the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks."

Pakistani officials said the others held were a Pakistani and a foreigner of Arab origin. An intelligence source said the third man was an Egyptian, but gave no other details.

Information Minister Rashid said on Pakistan Television the men put up resistance. "Shots were fired but no one was injured," he said.

But the family of the arrested Pakistani, Ahmed Quddus, said he was the only person seized when 20 to 25 armed security men raided their home in the middle-class Rawalpindi district of Westridge before dawn on Saturday, and no shots were fired.

Some analysts questioned whether Mohammed had actually been arrested on Saturday and speculated he might have been held for some time and the news made public when it was in the interests of the United States and Pakistan.

Washington had put a $25 million price on his head. He was one of 22 people on the FBI's list of "most wanted terrorists."

The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington by hijacked airliners killed about 3,000 people.

Mohammed was indicted in the United States in 1996 for his alleged role in a plot to blow up 12 American civilian airliners over the Pacific. Intelligence officials in the Philippines said he was also part of a cell accused of plotting to kill Pope John Paul in that country in 1995.

He is also suspected of involvement in the bombing of U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998 and an attack on a U.S. warship, the USS Cole, in Yemen in 2000.

REPORT OF LINK TO PEARL KILLING

A Pakistani newspaper further linked him to the kidnapping and murder of U.S. reporter Daniel Pearl. It said investigators believed Mohammed was the man who slit Pearl's throat in front of a video camera after the journalist disappeared in Karachi in January 2002 while investigating a story on Islamic extremists.

The family of the 41-year-old Quddus said on Sunday he was mentally slow and had no connection with any extremist group. "My brother has never been involved in any bad things," his sister, Qudsia Khanum, told Reuters.

Ahmed's father is a retired microbiologist who once worked for the United Nations, while his mother is a member of one of Pakistan's most prominent Islamic parties.

Interior Minister Hayat said investigations since the arrests had yielded fresh leads that could lead to new raids.

The chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives intelligence committee, Porter Goss, said the arrest would result in "other very successful activities soon."

Analysts said Mohammed could be vital to finding bin Laden. "Given his key position and role, it would be very surprising if he does not know the general location of Osama bin Laden," said Husain Haqqani of the Carnegie Endowment in Washington.

Mohammed is an uncle of Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, now serving a life sentence for involvement in the 1993 bombing of New York's World Trade Center, later destroyed in the September 11 attacks.

He studied in the United States, but moved to Pakistan's northwestern city of Peshawar in the late 1980s where he and his brothers are said to have linked up with bin Laden.

Hundreds of al Qaeda members and their Taliban allies are thought to have crossed from Afghanistan into Pakistan after U.S.-led forces overthrew the Taliban government in Kabul.


photo credit and caption:
Image taken off the FBI's ten most wanted website, showing two images of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (as spelled in website), on March 1, 2003. Pakistan said it had detained a leading member of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network, and CNN identified him as September 11 attack probable mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. The announcement followed the detention of three people in a raid near Islamabad. Photo by Reuters (Handout)

Copyright 2003 Reuters News Service. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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