Pakistan- No. 3 al-Qaida leader in U.S. custody

Tuesday, June 7, 2005

However, Abu Farraj al-Libbi does not appear on the FBI list of the world's most-wanted terrorists.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Pakistan said Monday it handed over a senior al-Qaida suspect to the United States even though he had been the country's most wanted man for allegedly masterminding two bloody attempts to blow up President Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

Some Pakistani officials have described Abu Farraj al-Libbi as al-Qaida's latest No. 3 man, after Osama bin Laden and Egyptian surgeon Ayman al-Zawahri. However, he did not appear on the FBI list of the world's most-wanted terrorists, and his exact role in al-Qaida remains murky.

The Libyan terror suspect was reportedly taken out of Pakistan aboard a plane by U.S. officials to an undisclosed destination a few days ago. U.S. officials here and in Washington declined to comment.

Al-Libbi was captured during a shootout with Pakistani agents May 2. He had long been sought for two bombings that narrowly missed Musharraf in December 2003 and a suicide attack aimed at Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz in July 2004. Neither leader was hurt but 26 people died.

Because of the grave nature of the attacks, al-Libbi had been widely expected to stand trial in Pakistan. But last week Musharraf told CNN his government would turn the Libyan over to the United States. In a newspaper interview published Monday, he confirmed the handover had taken place.

"Yes, we turned Abu Farraj al-Libbi over to the United States recently, and we don't want people like him in our country," he was quoted as saying by al-Ittihad, a newspaper in the United Arab Emirates.

Musharraf's spokesman, Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan, verified the comments, which were made during an official visit to the UAE.

A Pakistani intelligence official said al-Libbi was whisked out of Pakistan with U.S. officials on a plane "a few days ago." The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the clandestine nature of his job, said he did not know where al-Libbi was taken.

The U.S. Embassy in Islamabad said it had no information on the case, and the U.S. military in neighboring Afghanistan -- a possible detention or transit point for suspects sent out of Pakistan -- said it could not "confirm or deny" if al-Libbi passed through the country.

In Washington, the CIA, Justice Department and FBI declined to comment.

Pakistan says it has captured more than 700 al-Qaida suspects since the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the United States and has handed most of them over to American authorities.

They include al-Qaida's former No. 3, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, a key planner of the Sept. 11 attacks who was arrested in March 2003 during a raid near Islamabad. Two other alleged al-Qaida leaders, Ramzi Binalshibh and Abu Zubaydah, were also caught in Pakistan. Their place of detention remains a secret.

It is unclear what charges, if any, al-Libbi might face in the United States.

At the time of his arrest, a senior Pakistani intelligence officer told The Associated Press that al-Libbi had been in frequent contact with bin Laden in recent months and that Pakistani interrogators were grilling him on the terrorist chief's whereabouts.

Musharraf said last week that al-Libbi was cooperating but had not provided any useful information on the whereabouts of bin Laden, who is assumed to still be hiding in the rugged mountains along the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Talat Masood, a former senior defense official, said handing over al-Libbi to the United States would reinforce the impression of many Pakistanis that Musharraf's government is being dictated to by Washington and has compromised its sovereignty in the war on terrorism.

But, he added, the government might have shipped al-Libbi out for internal security reasons, fearing a trial could trigger more terrorist attacks in Pakistan.

Al-Libbi would face a maximum penalty of death by hanging if he was convicted in Pakistan for his alleged role in the attacks on Musharraf and Aziz.

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