Bhutto inquiry: How much headway?

The arrest of top militant leader Qari Saifullah Akhtar may have brought Pakistani intelligence agencies closer to discovering any conspiracy behind the Dec. 27 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. But many believe the opposite to be true.

Qari, chief of the militant group Harkatul Jehadul Islami (HUJI), banned for its links with the al-Qaeda and Taliban, was arrested on Monday for alleged involvement in an earlier attempt on Bhutto’s life on Oct. 18 when the cavalcade carrying her from Karachi airport, after years in exile, was attacked by a suicide bomber leaving 150 people dead.Sherry Rehman, spokeswoman for Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), said. “Even after his arrest, many in establishment circles say that Qari has actually been taken into protective custody.”

In a book, published posthumously in January, Bhutto had identified Qari as being involved in the suicide attack on her homecoming rally. In the book, ‘Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West,’ Bhutto said it was Qari “to whom intelligence officials in Lahore had turned to for help before her homecoming on Oct. 18, 2007”.

Qari’s release from prison, three months before Bhutto’s return home, has aroused suspicions that he was tasked with organising the October bombing. “Although no one is sure if there was a link between the release of Qari and the murder of Bhutto, one is constrained to ask as to how and why an al-Qaeda linked dreaded terrorist was set free, after three years, before Bhutto’s homecoming,” Rehman said.

Pakistan’s caretaker interior minister Lt. Gen. (retd) Hamid Nawaz told presspersons on Tuesday night that Qari was seized on Monday from the Ferozewala area close to Lahore along with his three sons. “Most probably, Qari Saifullah is involved in the Oct. 18 suicide attack on the welcome procession of Bhutto,” Nawaz said. So far, the government has been satisfied with blaming Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Tehrik-e-Taliban in Pakistan, for the assassination. Mehsud has denied any involvement.

Hashmat Habib, a lawyer for Qari, said that he was arrested at a shrine near Lahore where he had gone to offer prayers and that the charges against him were still not known. Habib conceded that Qari had been released by the authorities in mid-2007 after keeping him behind bars for two years and nine months without being charged. This is despite the fact that Qari was arrested and extradited from the UAE on Aug. 7, 2004 on the request of the Pakistan government on charges of plotting twin suicide attacks on President Musharraf in Dec. 2003.

Hassan Abbas, the author of a book ‘Allah, Army and America: Pakistan’s drift into Extremism,’ said “Pakistani authorities had described Qari Saifullah’s arrest as a major blow to the al-Qaeda sponsored terrorist network and its local affiliates in Pakistan. He was further painted as a close aide of Osama bin Laden and Mullah Mohammad Omar, who was working as the operational head of al-Qaeda in Pakistan. Qari was one of the few Taliban leaders who escaped with Mullah Omar after the fall of the Taliban regime to US-led forces late 2001, taking shelter in Pakistan’s South Waziristan. He then fled to Saudi Arabia and later moved to the UAE from where he was arrested and deported to Pakistan in August 2004. — IPS