Islamabad: Pakistani authorities have arrested the operational leader of the Pakistani-based militant group suspected of conducting the Mumbai attacks, a senior security official said on Monday.
The arrest on Sunday of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) commander Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi came as Pakistan raided a camp run by the group in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), the first concrete steps by Pakistan in response to the assault on Mumbai.
Lakhvi has been accused by India of being in control of the attackers in Mumbai as they terrorized the city during a three-day siege in which at least 183 people were killed.
The leader commanded the attack and then kept in communication with the gunmen by mobile and satellite phone as they rounded up guests in two hotels, killing some of them, according to Indian and Western investigators. How far the arrest of Lakhvi, and the raid, will go to satisfy the Indians remained an open question.
It appears to be the first time that Pakistan has captured a senior operational figure in LeT, a group that was founded in conjunction with the intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), in the late 1980s to fight a proxy war against India in Kashmir.
Pakistan previously arrested Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, 63, the head and ideological director of LeT, but then released him. Saeed maintains he is now only the head of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the charity wing of the militant group. Lakhvi is believed to be the operational chief of the organization working directly under Saeed, who gave a strong anti-India sermon at Friday prayers at his mosque in Lahore last week.
Lakhvi has been accused by India of masterminding an attack in 2002 against a prominent Indian military installation in New Delhi, the Red Fort, and of handling the bombings of commuter trains in Mumbai in July 2006.
Lakhvi was arrested in Muzaffarabad, the capital of PoK, Pakistani television said. A camp run by the group at Shawai, about 5km from Muzaffarabad, was closed by the Pakistani military on Sunday, television reports said. Nearby residents said they saw a military helicopter hovering over the camp, and several loud explosions.
LeT was banned in Pakistan in January 2002. But despite the formal prohibition, the group continued to function, US and Pakistani officials said. After the ban, it broadened its vision from fighting a proxy war in Kashmir against India to a more global jihadist agenda akin to that of Al Qaeda, American intelligence experts said.
The connections between ISI and the group continued after the ban, according to US and Pakistani officials. But US officials cautioned that they did not detect involvement of the Pakistani intelligence agency in the Mumbai assault. Pakistan has consistently denied any government connection with the Mumbai siege and has pledged to cooperate in the investigation.
A formal session of Pakistan’s defence committee of the cabinet gathered at the prime minister’s office in Islamabad on Monday to discuss the next options after Mumbai.
Pakistan is under intense pressure from the US and India to take action against militant groups. But at the same time Washington appears anxious not to put Pakistan under such stress that the new and fragile civilian government is seen as acting at the behest of either the US or India, an impression that would jeopardize the government’s standing with the Pakistani people.
Even so, US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice was firm during an interview on CNN on Sunday. “Pakistan needs to cooperate transparently. They’ve said that they will. Clearly there are organizations that operate with longstanding involvement in this kind of activity,” in Pakistan, she said.
The defence committee, a civilian body with the head of the army, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, as a member, replaced a military group, the National Security Council, which was disbanded as a national security decision-making body last week.
The meeting of the committee was hailed by the Pakistani civilian government as another move away from the military leadership of Pervez Musharraf, who resigned as president in September.
The last significant meetings of the defence committee of the cabinet were held after nuclear tests conducted by India in May 1998.
Few details are known about Lakhvi, except that he is from Punjab province, the heartland of Pakistan. Although LeT was founded to fight in Kashmir, its leadership is almost entirely from Punjab.
Its influence in Punjab has grown steadily in the last few years, particularly through its charity wing, Jamaat-ud-Dawa. A spokesman for Jamaat-ud-Dawa, Abdullah Muntazir, said his organization had no relationship with the camp closed by the military. He maintained the charity has nothing to do with LeT.
The government would not close down the charity because such a move would affect thousands of people who benefit from its good works, he said. Muntazir said he did not expect Saeed to be arrested because he was now head of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, not LeT.
The charity is popular in Pakistan, and became well known for its efficient delivery of relief to victims of the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir. Jamaat-ud-Dawa receives financial support from the Pakistani public in small and large donations, and from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region. It runs at least 100 Islamic schools, most of them in Punjab. These schools are viewed by many Pakistanis as recruiting grounds for young fighters to enter the training operations of LeT.
At the gate of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa compound outside Lahore last week, a young bearded man working as a guard said he was looking forward to going to Kashmir to become a fighter.
©2008/The New York Times