Reuters India : Pakistani police held over escape of British suspect

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Pakistani police held over escape of British suspect

By Kamran Haider | December 18, 2007

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistani authorities have arrested two policemen on suspicion of aiding the escape of a Pakistani-British man suspected of involvement in an al Qaeda plot to blow up airliners, police said on Tuesday.

Rashid Rauf, wanted by British authorities, escaped from the police on Saturday after an extradition hearing in an Islamabad court.

"We have arrested two constables who were guarding the man when he escaped," said senior Islamabad police officer Moin Masood.

The policemen had told investigators Rauf managed to run away after they took off his handcuffs to allow him to pray at a mosque, another police official said.

"After the hearing, they had lunch at a nearby restaurant and then they went to a mosque from where he disappeared while he was preparing for prayers with the two policemen," said the official, who declined to be identified.

"They said it all happened in a split second and they didn't know what a dangerous person he was."

Rauf's escape is a major embarrassment for the government of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. Former prime minister and opposition leader Benazir Bhutto said she was shocked by the escape and demanded a thorough investigation.

Arrested in Pakistan in August last year, Rauf was identified by Pakistani officials as a key figure in a plot to carry out suicide bombings on trans-Atlantic airliners.

According to reports, Rauf had left Britain for Pakistan in 2002 after the murder of an uncle. Britain had sought his extradition in connection with the killing.

Pakistan had said it was considering the extradition request and Pakistani newspapers had reported that he was going to be sent back to Britain.

A spokesman for British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in London said on Monday Britain had been assured Rauf's recapture was a priority.

An anti-terrorism court dropped terrorism charges against Rauf in December 2006, citing a lack of evidence, and referred lesser charges, including the possession of explosives, to a civil court.

But a high court in Lahore, acting on a plea from the government, later suspended the trial in a move aimed at getting the case referred back to the anti-terrorism court.

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