WASHINGTON — A convicted hijacker, indicted for his role in the 1986 takeover of a Pan Am jet in which 22 people--including two Americans--were killed, was in U.S. custody Monday in what authorities said was a sign of heightened commitment to combating terrorism.
President Bush said the arrest of Abu Nidal member Zayd Hassan Safarini, although unconnected to the Sept. 11 hijackings, "is an example of the wider war on terrorism and what we intend to do." U.S. officials said the arrest also reinforced the willingness of Pakistan--a critical but somewhat reluctant partner in the hunt for Osama bin Laden--to join the United States against terrorism.
The Pakistani and five other terrorists linked to the Abu Nidal extremist group were indicted in the United States in 1991 on charges that they hijacked Pan Am Flight 73 in 1986 as it was boarding in Karachi, Pakistan. The 379 people aboard were held hostage for 16 hours before the hijackers herded the them into the center of the plane and opened fire, killing 22 and injuring dozens.
For his role in the hijacking, Safarini spent 14 years in a Pakistan jail for murder. After his release from prison last week, Pakistani authorities turned him over to U.S. authorities Friday with the aid of an intermediary, according to a U.S. law enforcement official who asked not to be identified.
Asad Hayauddin, press attache for the Pakistan Embassy in Washington, said Pakistan has always sought to help the United States by tracking down terrorists in its country and turning them over.
"If we find them on our soil, we don't have a problem with it. It's just when we're expected to find them on other soil and help spring them for the United States, that's when we have a problem," he said, alluding to suspicions that Bin Laden is in Afghanistan.
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller said Safarini's arrest demonstrates the importance of taking a global approach to counter-terrorism and sharing information with other nations.
Bush urged patience in the hunt for terrorists.
"Sometimes we'll be able to round somebody up who threatens us today; sometimes it may take a while to catch" terrorists, Bush said in an appearance at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "But the lesson of this [Safarini] case, and every case, is that this mighty nation won't rest until we protect ourselves."
Safarini was transferred from Pakistan to Alaska, the nearest holding point, and made a brief appearance in federal court there Monday, where a judge ordered him detained without bond. He will be sent to Washington in the next few days for prosecution on the 1991 murder indictment, said Timothy Burgess, U.S. attorney for Alaska.
Bush also said Monday that federal efforts to disrupt the flow of money to terrorist groups are showing success. He said U.S. and overseas banks have frozen about $6 million in assets linked to Bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network as part of a coordinated campaign to block the assets of terrorist groups and their supporters.
"We're . . . beginning to make progress on the financial front," the president said.
Bush said 50 accounts, including 30 in the U.S., have been blocked since he issued an executive order Sept. 24 freezing the assets of 27 individuals and entities with terrorist links. The Bush order also declared that foreign banks found to be doing business with Al Qaeda or its allies will have their U.S. assets blocked.
In his announcement, Bush did not identify the account-holders or banks where the $6 million is deposited, but officials later said the frozen funds are mainly overseas.
Other countries have joined the effort. Treasury Department officials released a list on Monday of 20 that have ordered their banks to block such assets.
They are Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Paraguay, Uruguay, Venezuela, Australia, Thailand, Japan, Great Britain, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, New Zealand, France, Luxembourg, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, Argentina and the Bahamas.
Treasury officials said a dozen other nations have taken less sweeping measures, such as directing banks to "know your customer."
The White House is expected to expand the list soon of groups whose assets can be blocked, a government official said.
Members of the Foreign Terrorist Asset Tracking Center, a new branch of the Treasury Department, met over the weekend to consider additions to the list. The tracking center includes representatives from the CIA, the FBI, the National Security Agency and several branches of Treasury. The center was authorized by Congress last year but was not activated until three days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Meanwhile, authorities in Bosnia-Herzegovina on Monday reported their first arrests in connection with the international anti-terrorism effort.
Four people were arrested by Bosnian police and SFOR, the NATO-led international peacekeeping force deployed in Bosnia after the 1992-95 war, said Capt. Daryl Morrell, an SFOR spokesman.
Two of the people were arrested Sept. 25 and two more on Wednesday in Ilidza, a suburb of Sarajevo, the capital. Ilidza is near SFOR headquarters and the airport. Bosnian TV identified two of the suspects as Bosnians Nihad Karcic and Armin Harbaus and said they were employed by the Saudi humanitarian organization known as the Saudi High Commission for Relief.
Two other suspects, reportedly an Egyptian and a Jordanian, were seized at a hotel.
SFOR and Bosnian police also seized documents and computers from both locations, Morrell said. A safe holding about $60,000 was taken from the Saudi High Commission offices. No weapons were found at either location, but Associated Press reported that suspects from Egypt and Jordan were caught with box cutters similar to those believed to have been used by the Sept. 11 hijackers.
Times staff writer Alissa Rubin in Sarajevo contributed to this report.