Houston Chronicle : Pakistan hunts for escaped terror suspect

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Pakistan hunts for escaped terror suspect

British national is accused in plot to blow up planes

By LAURA KIN[G] and SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | Los Angeles Times | December 17, 2007

KARACHI, Pakistan — Pakistani authorities said Sunday they had launched a manhunt for a terror suspect, sought in an alleged plot to blow up trans-Atlantic jetliners, who escaped from police custody a day earlier under murky circumstances.

Senior Pakistani officials did not confirm the escape of Rashid Rauf, a British national of Pakistani origin, until nearly 24 hours after he fled Saturday. He reportedly was able to pick the lock on his handcuffs and overcome his captors after a court appearance in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.

Rauf's escape was a blow because of his value as a source of intelligence and evidence in the court case against the airline plotters, a British counterterrorism official said Sunday.

Two Western diplomats in Pakistan, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case, said the official Pakistani account of Rauf's escape was incomplete and contained contradictions. That, they said, could fuel suspicions of some form of official complicity in the getaway.

Extradition sought

The escape came as Britain was seeking Rauf's extradition in a murder case dating back to 2002, after Pakistani courts dropped terrorism charges against him. Officials close to the case said Rauf, arrested in Pakistan in August 2006, had been expected to be sent back to the United Kingdom soon.

The British High Commission said it had requested a full accounting of events surrounding Rauf's escape from Pakistani authorities. Britain's relations with the government of President Pervez Musharraf have been strained over Pakistan's suspension last month by the Commonwealth, a grouping made up mainly of former British colonies, over Musharraf's declaration of emergency rule.

The emergency decree, imposed Nov. 3, was lifted Saturday.

British briefed

Pakistan's caretaker interior minister, Hamid Nawaz, briefed British officials on the case, the Interior Ministry said.

Kemal Shah, the ministry's No. 2 official, said Sunday that it was still unclear whether Rauf managed to flee from the court complex after his hearing or after he and guards had set off for the jail in Rawalpindi.

Special security teams in several areas of the country had been assigned with the task of tracking down Rauf, Shah said. "We are doing our best to re-arrest him," ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema said.

Lower-ranking Pakistani officials first reported the escape Saturday and said two police officers who had been guarding the prisoner were under suspension and being questioned by authorities.

Rauf initially was described by investigators as a mastermind of the plot to blow up airliners en route from Britain to the United States using liquid explosives, but investigators later backed off on the magnitude of his role.

The uncovering of the airline plot triggered a worldwide security alert and largely was responsible for the subsequent imposing of tight restrictions on liquid items allowed in carry-on luggage.