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by Amir Mir

Musharraf Tries to Pin Blame for Bhutto Assassination on Pro-Taliban Pashtuns

(IPS) ISLAMABAD -- 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), told IPS: "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 organizing 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 reporters 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.

Bhutto said in her book: "I was informed of a meeting that had taken place in Lahore where the bomb blasts were planned. However, a bomb maker was needed for the bombs. Enter Qari Saifullah Akhtar, a wanted terrorist who had tried to overthrow my second government in 1990s. He had been extradited by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and was languishing in Karachi central jail. According to my sources, the officials in Lahore had turned to Qari for help."

Hashmat Habib, a lawyer for Qari, told IPS 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 Pervez Musharraf in December 2003.

Wajid Shamsul Hassan, a former High Commissioner of Pakistan to Britain and a close associate of Bhutto, said: "What happened after Qari Saifullah was let go by the Musharraf regime is not known. What is known is that instead of trying to prosecute and convict him, the authorities chose to keep him in custody without filing any criminal charges, giving credence to reports of his being a handy tool of the intelligence establishment who is used and dumped whenever required." That is why, Wajid said, Qari was quietly released by the agencies before Bhutto's return though he was involved in twin suicide attacks on Musharraf.

On reasons behind Qari's sudden release, his lawyer Habib said: "My client had quoted Pakistani intelligence sleuths as saying, at the time of his release, that if they had not picked him up there were chances that the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation would have taken him away (for his alleged al-Qaeda and Taliban links). The agencies, while setting him free, also warned him to be careful saying that, otherwise, he would be picked up again."

Hassan Abbas, the author of a book ďAllah, Army and America: Pakistan's drift into Extremism,' told IPS: "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 first arrested way back in 1995 for having plotted a coup against the second Bhutto government which was foiled by the then army chief Gen. Waheed Kakar."

Abbas said that immediately after the dismissal of the Bhutto government in 1996, Qari was released. He went to Afghanistan and was inducted into the cabinet of Taliban leader Mullah Omar as advisor on political affairs.

Qari was one of the few Taliban leaders who escaped with Mullah Omar after the fall of the Taliban regime to United States-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.

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Albion Monitor   February 28, 2008   (

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