- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 8, 2004

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — In a new blow to al Qaeda, authorities in the United Arab Emirates captured a senior operative in Osama bin Laden’s terror network who trained thousands of militants for combat and turned him over to Pakistan, the information minister said yesterday.

Qari Saifullah Akhtar was secretly flown to the eastern city of Lahore, where he was being interrogated, a Pakistani intelligence official said on the condition of anonymity.

Pakistan, a key ally of the United States in its war on terror, has arrested about 20 al Qaeda suspects in less than a month — including a top figure sought by the United States. The arrests prompted a series of raids in Britain and uncovered al Qaeda surveillance in the United States.

Akhtar once had run a vast terror camp in Rishkhor, Afghanistan, that was visited by bin Laden and Taliban chief Mullah Mohammed Omar. The camp — a sprawling complex of shattered barracks and dusty fields about 10 miles south of the Afghan capital, Kabul — trained 3,500 men in combat skills, including assassination and kidnapping.

Akhtar disappeared in the hours before the United States started bombing Afghanistan in October 2001 and had not been heard from since.

“Yes, we can confirm that we have Qari Saifullah,” Pakistani Information Minister Sheik Rashid Ahmed said.

Akhtar was arrested in Dubai “in the past week” and turned over to Pakistan, the minister said, without giving any details about the arrest.

Officials in Dubai had no comment.

In Washington, the head of the White House’s office of counterterrorism said Akhtar’s arrest was significant and that he was thought to be involved in two December attempts to assassinate President Pervez Musharraf.

The arrest is “very important, particularly for Pakistan,” Frances Townsend said on “Fox News Sunday.”

Asked whether Akhtar is thought to be involved in current al Qaeda operations, Mrs. Townsend said, “Absolutely. Absolutely.”

But Mr. Ahmed said it was “premature” to link Akhtar to the assassination attempts.

Akhtar is said to have been active in several Kashmiri militant groups, including the Harakat-ul-Jehad-e-Islami, whose Muslim fighters have fought as far afield as Chechnya and Bosnia.

“He had a hand in various cases,” Mr. Ahmed said of Akhtar, without elaborating.

Pakistan’s Geo television reported yesterday that authorities also had arrested Kashmiri militant Maulana Fazl-ur Rahman Khalil on charges of sending militants to Afghanistan to join the Taliban.

Khalil is said to be the leader of Harakat-ul-Mujahideen, a group linked to Harakat-ul-Jehad-e-Islami and one of several Kashmiri militant groups banned by Gen. Musharraf on suspicion of ties to al Qaeda.

Khalil also helped organize a clandestine 1998 trip by about a dozen Pakistani journalists to interview bin Laden in Khost, Afghanistan — one of the last interviews he granted.

Senior government ministers had no comment on the Geo report, which did not say when or where Khalil was arrested.

Mr. Ahmed said the arrest of Akhtar was not linked to the recent capture of two other al Qaeda operatives, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani and Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan.

Information gleaned during those arrests helped lead to a terror warning in the United States and a sweep in Britain that has netted about a dozen suspects.

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