The Times : Bomb plot suspect escaped while praying

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Bomb plot suspect escaped while praying

Pakistani ministers embarrassed as it emerges that police bungling set free the terror suspect Rashid Rauf

Zahid Hussain in Islamabad, Sean O'Neill and Catherine Philp | December 18, 2007

Rashid Rauf, a key suspect in the alleged Heathrow bomb plot, escaped police custody in Pakistan after officers allowed him to pray at a mosque as he was being driven back to prison in his uncle’s car.

The bizarre details of Mr Rauf’s escape, and the lax security, emerged as he spent his second day on the run, and are a huge embarrassment for the Pakistani Government.

Mr Rauf fled while being driven by two police officers from a court in Islamabad, where he had appeared over Britain’s request for his extradition. On a similar journey last year he arrived at court in a police van with three dozen police commando guards and several escort vehicles – standard practice for a high-value suspect.

Counter-terrorism sources in Britain reacted with dismay at the news. They have been seeking to extradite Mr Rauf to Britain since last year but efforts have been blocked by a lack of cooperation from Islamabad.

Mr Rauf’s arrest last summer in the Punjab province of Pakistan triggered a series of arrests across Britain amid allegations of a plot to detonate liquid explosives on board aircraft flying between Heathrow and the US.

Investigators have discovered that Mr Rauf left court in his uncle’s car, accompanied by two police officers, and was allowed to stop at a fast-food restaurant for lunch before going on to a mosque to pray.

The two officers waited in the car while Mr Rauf and his uncle, Mohammed Rafiq, entered the prayer room, but when they failed to emerge, the officers discovered that the men had escaped through the back door.

Investigators believe that the police escorts must have unlocked the suspect’s handcuffs to allow him to pray.

The new revelations have raised questions about whether the escape was the result of police negligence – or something more sinister. Hashmat Habib, Mr Rauf’s lawyer, yesterday questioned his client’s “mysterious disappearance from the court premises”, and alleged that Pakistani authorities were against his extradition. “There was no need for him to flee as he was quite happy to be extradited to Britain,” Mr Habib told The Times.

Britain is seeking his extradition in connection with the murder of another uncle, Mohammed Saeed, who was stabbed to death in Birmingham in 2002. He would also be questioned over his alleged role in the Heathrow bomb plots.

Mr Rauf, from Birmingham, is suspected of playing a vital role in the development of the al-Qaeda threat to Britain. He fled to Pakistan after his uncle’s murder and became involved with Jaish-e-Mohammed, the outlawed Islamic militant group.

He is believed to have acted as a facilitator and link man between young Britons arriving in Pakistan for jihadi training and militant Kashmiri groups with close ties to al-Qaeda.

Britain has raised the issue of his return at senior ministerial levels and there is concern that security around him was so lax he was able to escape with apparent ease.

The British High Commissioner to Pakistan said that an inquiry into Mr Rauf’s disappearance was under way.