Pakistan has arrested a suspected al-Qaida militant who slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto named before her death as one of those involved in an attempt on her life in October, a senior government official said Tuesday.
Qari Saifullah Akhtar, who has been in Pakistani custody before, was arrested Monday in the eastern city of Lahore for alleged involvement in the October suicide bombing in Karachi that hit Bhutto’s homecoming parade when she returned from exile, Interior Minister Hamid Nawaz said.
The bombing narrowly missed Bhutto but killed about 150 others. Bhutto was killed in a subsequent suicide attack on Dec. 27 in Rawalpindi near the capital Islamabad.
“He is involved in the blasts in Karsaz. Therefore he has been arrested,” Nawaz told The Associated Press, referring to the Karachi neighborhood where the October bombing happened.
Akhtar’s lawyer denied that he was involved.
Nawaz said authorities also arrested three other men, identified by Akhtar as his sons.
Bhutto fingers Akhtar in book
The minister did not provide details on the nature of Akhtar’s involvement in the October bombing, the deadliest suicide attack in Pakistan’s history.
The government has not previously named Akhtar as a suspect. It has blamed both the Karachi bombing and Bhutto’s assassination on Baitullah Mehsud, the top Taliban commander in Pakistan.
Bhutto had disputed that Mehsud was behind the Karachi attack. In a book she wrote shortly before her assassination, she claimed that Akhtar was involved in the bombing. She also accused political allies of President Pervez Musharraf of plotting to kill her.
Akhtar’s lawyer, Hashmat Habib, said he would challenge his arrest in the Supreme Court. He confirmed that Akhtar had once fought in jihadist groups in Afghanistan and the disputed Himalayan territory of Kashmir. But he said he had abandoned his involvement in militancy in 1994 and had no role in the Karachi attack.
Akhtar is believed to have run an al-Qaida training camp in Afghanistan during the former Taliban regime. The camp in Rishkhor, outside the capital Kabul, was visited by Osama bin Laden. His lawyer denied that he ran the camp.
Arrested in 2004, then released
He is also thought to have been active in militant groups fighting in Kashmir.
In August 2004, he was arrested in Dubai then extradited from the United Arab Emirates to Pakistan, where the government at the time said he was in Pakistani custody.
At the time, the then-head of the White House’s office of counterterrorism, Fran Townsend, hailed his arrest as “very important.” She claimed Akhtar was wanted in connection with two assassination attempts on Musharraf and was involved in terror training camps in Afghanistan.
Nawaz confirmed that Akhtar had been arrested before but said he did not have details on his subsequent release.
“I know that he had been arrested once,” he said.
Akhtar was supervising the construction of a tomb in Lahore at the time of his arrest with his three sons, aged 17-21, his lawyer said. Authorities had seized mobile phones, Akhtar’s car and other documents during the raid on his home. Two relatives of Akhtar, who were sent to a nearby police station to register a case over his capture, have also been detained, Habib said.
Habib said Akhtar had run a transport business in Dubai before his extradition to Pakistan. His case was raised in Pakistan’s Supreme Court when the nation’s top judge pushed the government to provide information on hundreds of people who disappeared into the custody of intelligence agencies on suspicion of involvement in anti-government activity.
Habib said Akhtar was subsequently freed in July 2007 and found abandoned on a road near Chakwal, a town about 55 miles south of Islamabad.
Habib confirmed Akhtar’s past jihadist ties, saying the suspect had been deputy chief of Harkatul Ansar, a Muslim guerrilla group that fought the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. He then joined Harkatul Mujahedeen, a group which fights Indian security forces in Kashmir.
But Akhtar described the allegation that Akhtar ran a terror camp in Afghanistan during the Taliban rule as “rubbish.” He said Akhtar had abandoned “his jihadi activities” since 1994 and had been living a “secluded life.”