Saturday, August 12, 2006

Pakistan ‘key’ to bomb plot

Pakistan ‘key’ to bomb plot
By Bob Sherwood in London and Farhan Bokhari in Islamabad
Published: August 11 2006 19:12 | Last updated: August 12 2006 02:03
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006

The arrest in Pakistan of up to three British men allegedly caught meeting local militants was on Friday night being heralded as the key breakthrough that helped foil a suspected terrorist plot to blow up US-bound aircraft, according to Pakistani intelligence officials.

One of those arrested, Rashid Rauf, was named by Pakistan’s interior minister as a “key person”. Aftab Khan Sherpao told AP Mr Rauf had ties with al-Qaeda and added: “We arrested him from the border area and on his disclosure we shared the information with British authorities which led to further arrests in Britain.” It was unclear on Friday night whether he was related to Tayib Rauf, one of those arrested in Birmingham in Wednesday night’s UK raids.

The link with Pakistan echoes the visits there of two of the men responsible for planting the bombs on London’s public transport system in July 2005. The UK-Pakistan intelligence sharing illustrates greater collaboration between the countries in the wake of the London attacks.

Britain remained on the highest possible security alert level on Friday in the wake of the alleged conspiracy to smuggle liquid explosives on to up to nine US aircraft at British airports.

Anti-terrorist police and the security services began the mammoth task of gathering evidence of the plot, interrogating 24 people arrested in raids on Wednesday night and searching homes and business premises connected with the suspects. At least one pre-recorded “martyrdom” tape was found during the raids.

The Bank of England froze the assets of 19 of the suspects, whom it named. All were British Muslim men, believed to be of Pakistani origin, aged 17-35.

Delays and severe carry-on luggage restrictions continued to hamper air travel in and out of the UK but airport operators said flights were gradually returning to normal.

Passengers were told that purchases from duty-free shops could be carried on to aircraft in a move which, for the duration of the hand-baggage ban, holds the prospect of a financial boost for the departure lounge operators. BAA, the airports operator, confirmed the rules after a second day of falling sales as passengers shunned duty-free shops in the wake of restrictions imposed to improve security.

John Reid, UK home secretary, said the high security level would remain because it was right to “err on the side of caution” and he was “grateful” for the help of the international community, in particular Pakistan, in disrupting the plot.

UK intelligence assessments suggested that the plotters may have planned attacks in two or three waves, attacking as many as nine aircraft in total, though that assessment could change as more details were uncovered.

The decision to make the arrests came amid signs that some of those involved were planning a “dry run”, possibly as early as Friday, while unconfirmed reports suggested that the alleged terrorists had planned to strike next Wednesday.

US officials said some of the suspects had travelled to Pakistan and that a British undercover agent had infiltrated the group.

Pakistani officials said they intensified their monitoring of suspects arriving from the UK at the start of the school summer holidays, a period when large numbers of Pakistani expatriates return home for family visits.

Pakistan’s role in helping foil the attack could help reduce international pressure on Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s president and army chief, frequently criticised, particularly in India, for stalling in his crackdown on Islamist extremists.

Frances Townsend, President George W. Bush’s homeland security adviser, said authorities were investigating whether the plotters had links in the United States.

Additional reporting by Stephen Fidler


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