Al-Qaida operative captured in Pakistan following firefight

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Acting on a tip that foreign militants had been spotted, Pakistani commandos attacked two motorcyclists -- one disguised in women's clothing -- on a dusty graveyard near a hilly, rough-and-tumble northern town in the country's farm belt.

After a firefight, they got their man -- al-Qaida's No. 3 operative, a close confidant of Osama bin Laden, say U.S. and Pakistani officials.

Abu Farraj al-Libbi, a Libyan, appeared disheveled, a bearded man with sunken eyes and what appears to be a skin condition, according to a photo taken by the government after his arrest. His appearance was a striking contrast with the most-wanted photo Pakistani authorities had posted, in which al-Libbi looks healthy and is dressed in a Western-style suit and tie.

Jubilant Pakistani authorities predicted Wednesday that al-Libbi's arrest would help in the hunt for bin Laden.

'Direct threat to America'

President Bush hailed the capture of al-Libbi, al-Qaida's alleged operational planner, as a "critical victory" that "removes a dangerous enemy who is a direct threat to America and for those who love freedom."

Al-Libbi, who is thought to use at least five aliases, is believed responsible for planning attacks in the United States, a U.S. counterterrorism official said.

U.S. officials said the arrest, which took place Monday, was the greatest blow to al-Qaida in more than two years -- though al-Libbi is not on the FBI's list of most-wanted terrorists. Al-Libbi was behind only Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahri and the al-Qaida chief himself in the terror organization's hierarchy, they said.

Al-Libbi was also Pakistan's most-wanted man, the main suspect behind two 2003 assassination attempts against President Gen. Pervez Musharraf -- and is likely to face the death penalty in Pakistan if convicted.

'A lot of tips'

Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said the arrest has already produced a treasure trove of intelligence, and predicted more breakthroughs to come.

"This is a very important day for us," Ahmed said. "This arrest gives us a lot of tips, and I can only say that our security agencies are on the right track" in the hunt for bin Laden. "This man knew many people and many hideouts."

A Pakistani intelligence official said 11 more terror suspects -- three Uzbeks, an Afghan and seven Pakistanis -- were arrested before dawn Wednesday in the Bajor tribal region. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, would not say what prompted authorities to launch the raid, or whether it was linked to al-Libbi's capture.

Al-Libbi was arrested along with another foreigner after a firefight on the outskirts of Mardan, a town 30 miles north of Peshawar, capital of the deeply conservative North West Frontier Province, officials said.

Villagers in the Mardan suburb of Shahdand Baba told Associated Press Television News that a small team of Pakistani security agency officers pounced as two men rode by motorbike across a dusty graveyard.

One man was captured quickly, while another, who was dressed in the all-encompassing burqa worn by women in conservative Islamic families, managed to escape temporarily. He fled to a big home of Mardan resident Zakir Khan.

Pakistani intelligence agents "came in through our roof. They told me, 'We are chasing a man who is hiding in your house," Khan said. "We gave them permission to come in. One man was hiding in the guest quarters and they found him there. He was a fat man with a long beard and a fair complexion. They arrested him."

It was not clear if the man was al-Libbi or the other suspect, who has yet to be identified.

The arrest breaks a monthslong drought in the dragnet for bin Laden and his top lieutenants. The terror mastermind has evaded a manhunt since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, appearing periodically on videotapes to warn of more violence. He is believed hiding along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

U.S. officials said the arrest was the most significant since the March 1, 2003 capture of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, also in Pakistan. They said it was the result of months of close cooperation between Pakistan and the CIA's most famous division, its clandestine service.

The American officials said the Pakistanis captured al-Libbi through human intelligence -- traditional spying -- but would not say whether the source or sources of the information that led to his capture were working with U.S. or Pakistani intelligence.

One Pakistan intelligence official said authorities were led to the hideout by a tip that foreigners had been spotted in the area. Another acknowledged that information from the Americans helped Pakistan plan a well-coordinated operation, but said Pakistan also obtained intelligence from militants it arrested months ago.

Al-Libbi had differences with Uzbeks and other militants who had been reluctant to accept him as a leader, hinting at a possible rift within al-Qaida's ranks, according to one of the Pakistani officials.

The last major breakthrough in Pakistan against al-Qaida was the September killing of Amjad Hussain Farooqi, a Pakistani associate of al-Libbi. Before that, Pakistani forces arrested Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a Tanzanian on the FBI's most-wanted list, in July 2004. Ghailani is now in U.S. custody.

The U.S. counterterrorism official said the relationship between bin Laden and al-Libbi dates to al-Qaida's early days in Sudan, where bin Laden set up a complex of businesses and terror enterprises in 1991. He assumed more authority within the terror group after the arrest two years ago of Mohammed, the official said.

Pakistani Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao said the U.S. government offered a $10 million bounty for information leading to al-Libbi's arrest.

But a State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there was no specific reward for al-Libbi on the government's Rewards for Justice program, which provides millions in some cases for information leading to the killing or capture of terrorists.

Vince Cannistraro, the former head of the CIA's counterterrorism center, said al-Libbi's absence from the FBI list does not mean the rest of the intelligence community didn't want him -- badly.

"Clearly, he had succeeded KSM (Mohammed) as the operational chief of al-Qaida and was an important person," Cannistraro said. "In intelligence circles, he was certainly considered the No. 3 man."

Kenneth Katzmann, a terrorism expert with the Congressional Research Service, which advises U.S. lawmakers, said he views the arrest as "unadulterated good news."

"However, I note with interest that last year, when the Pakistanis were on his trail or looking intently, they didn't indicate he was quite the kingpin as he is now that they captured him. There may be some grade inflation going on."

Al-Libbi was among six suspects identified as Pakistan's most-wanted terrorists in a poster campaign last year.

Five dermatologists who viewed al-Libbi's picture taken after his arrest said the skin condition looks like vitiligo, which causes skin discoloration from loss of pigment cells. Vitiligo, the same skin condition Michael Jackson has said he has, can occur at any age and is thought to involve a faulty immune system. Skin exposed to the sun is often affected.


Associated Press reporters Katherine Shrader in Washington, Matthew Pennington in Islamabad and Riaz Khan in Peshawar contributed to this report.

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