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Pakistan frees Hafiz Saeed, alleged mastermind of Mumbai attacks

Hafiz Saeed, whose house arrest in January was seen as a signal of a broader shift in Pakistan’s treatment of extremists, was released before dawn.
Image: Lahore High Court orders release of Hafiz Saeed
Hafiz Saeed Rahat Dar / EPA

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistani authorities released the alleged mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks from house arrest, but he still has a $10 million U.S. bounty on his head.

Hafiz Saeed, whose arrest in January was seen as a signal of a broader shift in Pakistan’s treatment of extremists, was freed before dawn Friday local time in the city of Lahore, according to Hafiz Abdul Rauf, a spokesman for the Islamist cleric's charity.

"I’m happy that no allegation against me was proved, which could have done damage to me, or my country’s interests," Saeed later told supporters. "Thank God, we were vindicated."

Hafiz Saeed waves to supporters outside a court in Lahore.Rahat Dar / EPA

Saeed ran the Jamaat-Ud-Dawa organization (Party of the Faith), which is thought to be a front for the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba militant group. India believes that Lashkar-e-Tayyaba was behind the deadly attack in Mumbai.

Pakistan has been detaining and freeing Saeed off and on since the attacks left 166 dead, including several Americans.

His release came after a panel of judges dismissed a government request to continue his house arrest, which ended Thursday. Four aides had already been released.

The government's decision to place Saeed under house arrest in January was driven in part by President Donald Trump’s arrival on the world stage as well as pressure from China, according to military insiders, and his release prompted a sharply worded statement from the State Department.

The United States is "deeply concerned" about Saeed's release, given that Lashkar-e-Tayyaba is "responsible for the death of hundreds of innocent civilians in terrorist attacks, including a number of American citizens," the statement said. "The Pakistani government should make sure that he is arrested and charged for his crimes."

India's External Affairs Ministry also condemned the release, and said in a statement that a "self-confessed and U.N. proscribed terrorist was being allowed to walk free and continue with his evil agenda."

"He was not only the mastermind, he was the prime organizer of the Mumbai terror attacks in which many innocent Indians and many people from other nationalities were killed," spokesman Raveesh Kumar said in a statement.

Indian soldiers battle militants near the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai on Nov. 29, 2008.Desmond Boylan / Reuters file

Kumar said Saeed's "release confirms once again the lack of seriousness on the part of Pakistani government in bringing to justice perpetrators of heinous acts of terrorism."

Like much of Pakistan's establishment, Saeed was virulently anti-India and campaigned against New Delhi’s occupation of the disputed territory of Kashmir for years.

Often a guest on conservative television talks shows, the popular jihadist still attracts large crowds with his anti-American and anti-Indian diatribes in rallies and protests.

Even though Pakistan has been involved in extensive counterterror and counterinsurgency operations against al Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban and the Islamic State — the military says it has lost more than 7,000 soldiers battling terrorists since Sept. 11, 2001 — it is often blamed for selectively harboring certain other militant groups.

These include elements of the deadly Haqqani network in Afghanistan, the leadership of the Afghan Taliban, as well as Lashkar-e-Tayyaba.

Saeed's release could once again sour U.S. relations with nuclear-armed Islamabad, which had seen an apparent improvement in relations after the rescue by Pakistan’s military of the American hostage Caitlan Coleman and her family on Oct. 13.

"This is a positive moment for our country's relationship with Pakistan," Trump said in a statement after Coleman was freed. "The Pakistani government's cooperation is a sign that it is honoring America's wishes for it to do more to provide security in the region."

Ties between Islamabad and Washington had deteriorated during Trump’s first months in office.

In August, he warned that Pakistan had “much to lose” if it failed to cooperate with the U.S. in neighboring Afghanistan. He also expressed a desire to see India — Pakistan’s archrival — become an active stakeholder in stabilizing Afghanistan.

Before becoming president, Trump criticized Pakistan and said in a tweet: "Get it straight: Pakistan is not our friend. We’ve given them billions and billions of dollars, and what did we get? Betrayal and disrespect—and much worse. #TimeToGetTough"

For years, the Pakistanis have been blamed by the U.S. for not doing enough in their counterterrorism efforts to end the Afghan war — the longest military engagement in America's history. Islamabad has rejected the criticism, saying it has also suffered being an ally of Washington in the war against terror.

F. Brinley Bruton , Associated Press and Reuters contributed.