Telegraph : Bomb plot suspect 'escaped while praying'

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Bomb plot suspect 'escaped while praying'

By Isambard Wilkinson, Pakistan Correspondent | December 18, 2007

The escape of one of Britain's most wanted terrorist suspects from Pakistani custody has become further mired in mystery when Pakistani officials claimed he fled from a mosque after being freed from his handcuffs to say prayers.

Rashid Rauf, 26, a British national who is suspected of being a ringleader in an alleged plot to blow up trans-Atlantic passenger aircraft, managed to escape from two police guards at the weekend after a court appearance.

Rauf's escape is a source of major embarrassment for President Pervez Musharraf, who had ended a state of emergency on the same day, and of friction with British officials who believed they were on the point of clinching his extradition.

The full details of the escape by Rau[f] - who British and US intelligence officials claim was a key link between al-Qa'eda and terrorists in Britain - have not yet emerged. It is not known whether it was the result of negligence or a conspiracy.

Accounts given by police officers yesterday suggested that while Rauf was on his way back to a high-security prison in Rawalpindi after appearing in court he asked his guards to let him say afternoon prayers at a roadside mosque.

"The policemen accepted his request," said a police official. "Rashid Rauf went inside the mosque with handcuffs on, but he slipped out from a rear door."

"It seems his handcuffs would have been removed to let him say his prayers," said Mohsin Rafiq, superintendent of Adiala jail. "It is sheer negligence."

According to his lawyer, Hashmat Habib, Rauf, whose alleged plot led to worldwide restrictions on liquids in carry-on baggage, was routinely escorted for court appearances by a group of armed police commandos.

"How can it happen that only two policemen were travelling with him on Saturday?" he asked.

The two police escorts are being questioned.

"These things do happen. There will always be human failure," said the information minister, Nisar Memon.

Western officials believe that his escape, although "fishy", was not part of a high-level conspiracy.

The negotiations between Britain and Pakistan for his extradition had been bogged down by horse-trading.

Pakistan demanded that Britain hand over eight nationalist separatists from the province of Balochistan in return for Rauf.

Britain arrested two Baloch suspects earlier this month but it is doubtful whether they could have been extradited to Pakistan where the death sentence is routinely carried out.