Telegraph : London airline bomb plot suspect escapes

Sunday, December 16, 2007

London airline bomb plot suspect escapes

By Massoud Ansari and Miles Erwin | December 16, 2007

A key suspect in last year's alleged plot to bomb aircraft flying from Heathrow airport has staged a dramatic escape from custody in Pakistan.

Rashid Rauf, 26, a British national who used to live in Birmingham, escaped from Pakistani authorities after appearing before a judge in an Islamabad court. He could have faced extradition to Britain within weeks.

Khalid Pervez, a city police official, said that Rauf managed to open his handcuffs and evade police guards taking him back to Adiala prison in the nearby city of Rawalpindi.

Sources said that 12 policemen were being questioned and two had been accused of assisting the escape. "We do not know how he escaped. But we do know he has escaped and the two policemen have been taken into custody for negligence," said Mr Pervez.

Pakistani authorities confirmed that a manhunt had begun, with raids being carried out in an attempt to bring Rauf, regarded as a major suspect in the bombings, back into custody.

"Rashid Rauf escaped from police custody and we are making every possible effort to re-arrest him," said Brigadier Javed Cheema, the interior ministry spokesman.

The police chief of Islamabad, Shahid Nadeem Baluch, said: "The hunt is on to track him down. We have conducted some raids but so far there hasn't been any breakthrough."

Rauf is thought to have escaped at around 3pm (10am British time). His lawyer, Hashmat Habib, said, however, that his client had disappeared from police custody under "mysterious circumstances." Mr Habib added: "Police took my client from Adiala jail Saturday afternoon for a court appearance in nearby Islamabad and now they say he's escaped. It comes at a time when the British government is trying to extradite him. And it all looks very suspicious to me."

Rauf was arrested in Pakistan in August last year along with seven other suspects, after a tip-off from British intelligence, over alleged attempts to blow up 10 transatlantic jets.

Police believe that the plan was for different passengers to carry peroxide-based liquid explosive in drinks containers and detonators disguised as electronic devices and combine them on board. The arrests sparked a security alert and mass flight cancellations as well as restrictions on carry-on luggage.

A dual citizen of Britain and Pakistan, Rauf is married to a relative of Maulana Masood Azhar, the head and founder of Jaish-e-Mohammed, an Islamist militant group in Pakistan that has been linked to al-Qaeda. Azhar has lived in Bhawalpur, a city in eastern Pakistan where Rauf had also settled.

The Pakistani interior minister, Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao, has called Rauf "an al-Qaeda operative with linkages in Afghanistan", but the anti-terrorism court in Rawalpindi found no evidence that he had been involved in terrorist activities. His charges were downgraded to forgery and possession of explosives.

He is understood to have left Birmingham following the stabbing of his uncle, Mohammed Saeed, 54, near his home in Alum Rock in April 2002.

Britain has been seeking his extradition in relation to the murder, which has not been solved. It was reported last week that British officials had been engaged in secret negotiations with Pakistan to have Rauf handed over.

There is no extradition treaty and the Pakistani authorities were said to have requested a prisoner swap for two suspects arrested in Britain - Faiz Baluch, 25, and Hyrbyair Marri, 39.

They were arrested last week and jointly charged under the Terrorism Act with inciting terrorism and murder in Pakistan and of having links to an international terrorist group. Both claim they are peaceful activists calling for the independence of Baluchistan, a troubled province of Pakistan. The prisoner swap claims were denied by British authorities.

At the time of Rauf's arrest, Pakistan said he was a major suspect in the terrorism plot, but three days ago a Pakistani anti-terrorism court dropped the terrorism charges and held him only for allegedly possessing bomb-making equipment and living in Pakistan without appropriate documents.

That judgment was suspended on appeal and he faces the terrorism charges until his case is heard again on January 15. He was to have remained in custody until January 19.

Pakistani authorities have been accused of torturing Rauf to elicit more information. Mr Habib said his client had been falsely implicated and would prove his innocence.

News of Rauf's escape came as a surprise to his family in Birmingham. "I don't know anything - I'm shocked," said his father, Abdul Rauf.

A Pakistani security official said Rauf's frequent use of text messages to Britain led to his arrest outside an internet shop in Zhob, in the border region of Baluchistan.