- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 2, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) — Police yesterday formally accused the top Taliban leader in the country and four others of planning the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto.

Police filed preliminary charges in court against Baitullah Mehsud, who had been named by the government in the Dec. 27 killing of Mrs. Bhutto in a suicide bomb and gun attack during a public rally. Mehsud, who is purported to have al Qaeda connections, is underground and it is not clear if the police are anywhere close to catching him.

“Police submitted preliminary charges in the Bhutto case before an anti-terrorism court, and the judge issued non-bailable warrants of arrest against Baitullah Mehsud and four other accused” persons, said Chaudhry Abdul Majeed, the chief investigator in the case.

Mehsud was named by President Pervez Musharraf within days of the assassination, but the filing of the preliminary charges yesterday completes a legal formality. It is the first legal step before an arrest can be made.

Mehsud is the commander of Tehrik-e-Taliban, an umbrella group of Islamist militant groups linked to al Qaeda. Mehsud is believed to be based in the volatile South Waziristan province at the border with Afghanistan, and has been blamed for organizing a series of suicide attacks across Pakistan.

Mr. Majeed refused to give details of the investigation into the specific roles that the suspects are accused of playing in the assassination.

“The suspects, declared absconders in the case, were involved in planning to kill Benazir Bhutto,” he said.

He said the others named in the charges are Ibadur Rehman, Imramullah, Faiz Muhammad and Abbdullah. All five are accused of being involved in planning and financing the assassination plot, he said. Imramullah and Abbdullah use only one name.

Police have already arrested five suspects in connection with Mrs. Bhutto’s killing, including Husnain Gul, who purportedly facilitated Mrs. Bhutto’s attacker because he wanted to avenge the death of a friend in a military attack on a mosque last year.

Mr. Gul and his cousin, identified only as Rafaqat, were arrested recently. Other suspects include a 15-year-old boy, Aitezaz Shah, and two others, Sher Zaman and Abdul Rasheed, who are said to have supplied arms to the attacker, identified as Saeed alias Bilal.

Mr. Majeed said earlier that police were still looking for another man, Ikramullah, who is believed to have been assigned to attack Mrs. Bhutto if she escaped the first blast.

According to the police, the 15-year-old boy said Mehsud had sent a five-member squad on the day of the attack and that he was among the backup team along with Ikramullah.