(AP) SLAMABAD, Pakistan – A senior Pakistani al-Qaida operative who used to run one of the terror group’s training camps in Afghanistan has been arrested in the United Arab Emirates and handed over to Pakistani officials, the information minister said Sunday.
Qari Saifullah Akhtar is in Pakistani custody, the latest in a string of major breakthroughs against the al-Qaida network, Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed told The Associated Press.
Akhtar ran an al-Qaida training camp in Rishkhor, Afghanistan, where terrorists learned kidnapping and assassination techniques, as well as traditional combat skills used by Taliban fighters in their war to win control of the country before they were ousted in late 2001.
“Yes we can confirm that we have Qari Saifullah,” Ahmed said.
Some 3,500 men passed through Rishkhor, a sprawling complex of shattered barracks and dusty training fields about 10 miles south of the Afghan capital, Kabul. Al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar are both believed to have visited the camp.
The camp was deserted in the hours ahead of the U.S. bombing campaign in October 2001, and Akhtar got away. It is now used as a base by Afghan soldiers.
The information minister said Akhtar was arrested in Dubai and was handed over to Pakistan but did not specify when. An intelligence official told AP that Akhtar was being held in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore.
“He had a hand in various cases,” Ahmed said of Akhtar, without giving any details. Ahmed said the arrest was not linked to the recent arrests of two other al-Qaida operatives, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani and Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan.
Information gleaned from those two arrests helped lead to a terror warning in the United States and a sweep in Britain that has netted about a dozen suspects. About 20 suspects have been arrested in Pakistan as well.
Two South Africans arrested with Ghailani on July 25 had just arrived from the United Arab Emirates, and several other al-Qaida suspects are believed to have transited through that country as well.
Word of Akhtar’s arrest follows news that Pakistani agents working closely with U.S. officials are searching for two north African associates of Ghailani, a Tanzanian who had a $25 million bounty on his head for his role in the 1998 bombing of U.S. embassies in east Africa, security officials said Saturday.
The hunt for Abu Farj, a Libyan, and Hamza, from Egypt, began on a tip from Khan, an al-Qaida computer whiz who last month helped Pakistani police arrest Ghailani and whose computer contained photographs of potential targets for attacks in the United States and Britain.
“Yes, our security agencies are looking for Abu Farj and Hamza, but I have no details,” said a senior government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Another security official confirmed that Pakistani intelligence agents were searching for the pair. He refused to elaborate and it was not immediately clear when and from where Farj and Hamza entered Pakistan or what they were doing here.
Pakistan, a key ally of the United States in its war on terror, has arrested about 20 al-Qaida suspects in less than a month.
British authorities on Tuesday conducted a sweep in and around London that netted 13 suspects, including a man known as Abu Eisa al-Hindi or Abu Musa al-Hindi, believed to be a senior al-Qaida member who had been plotting an attack on Heathrow.
Khan and Ghailani remained “silent” for a while, but are now “cooperating” with authorities, said a third security official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity.
“Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan, in the presence of Pakistani investigators, sent some e-mails to some al-Qaida men, and he received the answer,” he said. He declined to give details of the messages.