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Suspect in airliner bomb plot escapes in Pakistan

December 16, 2007|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — A British suspect in an alleged plot to blow up transatlantic jetliners escaped from police custody in Pakistan on Saturday, officials said.

Rashid Rauf fled after appearing before a judge at a court in the capital, Islamabad, said city police official Khalid Pervez.

"We do not know how he escaped. But . . . the two policemen have been taken into custody for negligence," Pervez said.

Rauf, who is of Pakistani origin, was arrested here in August 2006 on a tip from British investigators. He has been described as a key suspect in a purported plot to blow up jets flying from Britain to the U.S., which prompted a major security alert at airports worldwide and increased restrictions on carry-on items.

Investigators see Rauf as a significant link between a group of British extremists planning those attacks and the Al Qaeda leaders who allegedly oversaw the network's most ambitious plot since the Sept. 11 attacks.

The reported escape only adds to the questions about Rauf's alleged role and arrest and to the difficulty of determining the interplay between Western militants and elusive Al Qaeda leaders who are thought to be at large in Pakistan and suspected of overseeing a series of plots against Europe in the last four years.

Although initial descriptions of Rauf as a mastermind were inaccurate, officials say, he did serve as a conduit for getting the British suspects to training facilities in Pakistan. Al Qaeda operatives then trained the suspects in the complex techniques involved in preparing materials for liquid explosives that they intended to conceal in sports drinks and other containers and smuggle aboard U.S.-bound planes, officials said. The materials were to have been mixed after takeoff.

About half a dozen of the suspects traveled to Pakistan for training in the Waziristan region, allegedly an outpost of a resurgent Al Qaeda, in the year before their arrests, investigators say.

"He is a facilitator and a communications hub, getting people there to train in Pakistan," a Western anti-terrorism official said of Rauf. "He also could have contacts with high-level Al Qaeda individuals."

Rauf's arrest resulted from pressure from American anti-terrorism agents who became increasingly worried about the threat as the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks approached, according to British officials. The British would have preferred to wait and conduct further surveillance as the plotters were weeks away from attempting the attack when they were arrested, officials said.

Strangely, Pakistani prosecutors dropped terrorism charges against Rauf this year, saying they lacked evidence. But that move appeared to clear the way for the British extradition in a murder case in Birmingham in which Rauf is a suspect. The British remained interested in interrogating Rauf in the airline plot, officials said.

Investigators expected the extradition to take place "in the near future," the Western official said. Rauf's escape will probably revive concerns that elements within the Pakistani security forces may be in league with Islamic militants.

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