Pakistan arrests 10 al-Qa'ida suspects over assassination bid

Posted in Broader Middle East | 14-Jun-04 | Author: Jan McGirk| Source: The Independent

Head-covered suspected activists of al-Qaida terrorist organizaion are led out of anti-terrorist court, Monday, June 14, 2004 in Karachi, Pakistan.

Pakistani authorities announced the arrest, in Karachi over the weekend, of 10 al-Qa'ida suspects, including a nephew of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Masrab Arochi, who has a $1million bounty on his head.

Those arrested included eight Central Asians believed responsible for a recent assassination attempt against a senior military official. The Interior Minister, Faisal Saleh Hayat, said the eight had confessed to their part in Thursday's attempt to kill Lieutenant-General Ahsan Saleem Hayat, the corps commander of Karachi. Ten others died in the attack.

Meanwhile Pakistani troops pounded a remote tribal zone on the Afghanistan border with aerial bombs and heavy artillery in a new offensive to purge al-Qa'ida-linked insurgents sheltering with Pashtun tribesmen.

In five days of fighting near Shakai village in southern Waziristan, a suspected al-Qa'ida training base was destroyed and mountain hideouts were attacked. Fifteen Pakistani soldiers and 35 militants have died in skirmishes since Wednesday, after rocket attacks on army checkpoints west of Wana, a military spokesman said.

Nek Mohammed, a charismatic young Pakistani chieftain, is a marked man in Waziristan. Alongside Osama bin Laden, Mullah Muhammad Omar, Ayman al-Zawahiri and the Uzbek leader Tahir Yuldevish - all suspected to have taken refuge in Waziristan after the Taliban regime fell in December 2001 - Nek Mohammed is feared as a key terrorist leader.

Threats by this former Taliban commander to bring the battle into urban Pakistan, made in a phone interview last week with the BBC Pashto service, appear far from idle. They may even have inspired the assassination attempt on the general.

The slick jihadi recruitment DVDs which feature this 27-year-old militant are hot items in the bazaars across Pakistan's North West Frontier Province. Some youths hail Nek Mohammed as a home-grown revolutionary. In the past three weeks, he has twice crossed into Afghanistan although he is high on the Americans' wanted list.

Nek Mohammed is al-Qa'ida's roguishly handsome point man in Waziristan, where he allegedly supplies foreign fighters with hideouts and rations, recruits new guerrillas loyal to the fugitive Taliban chief, Mullah Omar, and grows rich pocketing wads of foreign cash and reselling fleets of al-Qa'ida cars.

To mark his new stature as the Pashtun hero who humbled the Pakistan army and defied the US, Nek Mohammed has taken a second bride. By tradition, he is entitled to two more and they are said to be queuing for this turbanned firebrand with black ringlets and a sly grin.

Ardent fans of both sexes listen for the radio spots he does by satellite phone, or endlessly replay his two militant DVDs. These show the Pakistani army's failed spring offensive with US forces at Afghan firebases, which fizzled out at a getaway tunnel freshly dug under Nek Mohammed's compound. Al-Qa'ida warriors, said to include Chechens and Uzbeks, had apparently melted away, to the fury of Washington and Islamabad.

They retracted their claims that a senior al-Qa'ida leader had been in the noose when Pakistan's troops met unexpectedly stiff resistance in a siege on Nek Mohammed's fortress. The sprawling stone compound was initially raided in mid-March after Nek Mohammed surfaced on an early DVD vowing to protect foreign militants.

After fighting broke out at Nek Mohammed's compound, further battles erupted near the town of Wana, as guerrillas ambushed government convoys and rocketed Peshawar. Open tribal rebellion appeared imminent, and Islamabad changed tack.

In April the army corps commander summoned Nek Mohammed for truce talks with other tribal leaders at Shakai village. The Pashtun leader vowed to live in peace after registering foreign guests. Dramatically, he surrendered one rusty sword, a pistol and a Kalashnikov rifle as part of a ceasefire agreement negotiated after his al-Qa'ida-backed fighters killed 60 Pakistani soldiers. That truce broke down last week when Nek Mohammed refused to hand over al-Qa'ida "remnants" still lodging in his territory.

Negotiations with General Pervez Musharraf's government yielded no foreign militants, although 4,000 parami litary tribal fighters supposedly searched Waziristan for the 500 men said to have taken sanctuary there. Their patience exhausted, the army bombed the hideouts of these suspected militants on Friday. They also ordered the capture of Nek Mohammed and his four closest colleagues, dead or alive.

A plan to raze Wana's main bazaar if tribesmen could not produce foreign fighters said to be hiding in the area appears to have pushed more armed tribesmen into resistance.