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Confusion over arrests at Pakistan camp

It's unclear whether an alleged mastermind of the Mumbai attacks was among those held in a military raid.

December 09, 2008|Laura King | King is a Times staff writer.

SLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — Pakistani officials offered contradictory statements Monday as to whether an accused mastermind of the Mumbai attacks was among those arrested when Pakistani troops swooped down a day earlier on an alleged militant camp.

A terse statement from the military late Monday acknowledged an unspecified number of arrests in Sunday's operation in the Pakistani-controlled slice of Kashmir, but it did not address whether Zaki-ur Rehman Lakhvi, a senior figure in the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group, was in custody.

Witnesses said troops sealed off the camp, outside the regional capital, Muzaffarabad, and briefly battled those holed up within.

Two senior Pakistani officials said early Monday that they believed Lakhvi was among those arrested, but two others said later in the day that, to their knowledge, Lakhvi was not one of more than a dozen suspected militants detained. All four officials spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the issue.

The confusion that persisted 24 hours after the raid took place underscored the extreme discomfort over public discussion of action taken or contemplated against militants suspected in last month's shooting rampage in Mumbai, India's commercial and entertainment hub.

Part of that is due to enmity with India; part is due to the widespread sense in Pakistan that moving aggressively against Islamic insurgents has galvanized them to carry out suicide attacks at home, including the September truck bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, the capital, that killed more than 50 people.

Nearly two weeks after militants attacked Mumbai, killing more than 170 people, Pakistan's government is under intense pressure from Washington officials and others to go after the suspected perpetrators. But Pakistani leaders fear a domestic backlash if the government moves forcefully against militant groups.

India and Western intelligence officials have cast strong suspicion on Lashkar-e-Taiba, or "Army of the Pure," and an affiliated group called Jamaat ud-Dawa, a self-described charitable and educational organization.

The timing of the raid, on the eve of one of the most important holidays of the Muslim calendar, appeared to be aimed at heading off public outcry over the government's actions. Pakistanis travel in droves to their hometowns and ancestral villages for the feast of Eid al-Adha, bringing the country to a virtual standstill. Most offices are closed.

Lashkar-e-Taiba has been formally banned in Pakistan since 2002, but Jamaat ud-Dawa has an extremely large popular following. The government has made no overt moves against Lashkar's founding member, Hafiz Saeed, who now heads Jamaat.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called the Pakistani raid a "positive step" but did not say whether Lakhvi was arrested. Other U.S. officials voiced some skepticism about the reports, citing the conflicting signals out of Pakistan.

But one described Lakhvi as one of the most important leaders in the Lashkar organization. "He is Lashkar's operations boss, and he goes back to the very beginning," said a senior U.S. counter-terrorism official, speaking on condition of anonymity when discussing intelligence assessments.

In May, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed financial sanctions on Lakhvi and three other leaders of Lashkar, saying at the time that they were still living openly in Pakistan. The department said the Pakistani-born Lakhvi, 47, had directed Lashkar's military operations, "including in Chechnya, Bosnia, Iraq and Southeast Asia" and had sent operatives and funds to attack U.S. forces in Iraq in 2004.

The Pakistani military statement said intelligence officials had taken the lead in the latest operations against banned militant groups. That subject is especially fraught because Lashkar was nurtured by Pakistan's intelligence apparatus, which used its fighters as assets in a guerrilla war against Indian rule in part of Kashmir.

Whether there are continuing links between Lashkar and elements within Pakistan's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence directorate is a matter of intense debate in the wake of the Mumbai rampage. Indian authorities have said they believe former ISI officials were involved in training and arming the group.

The lone suspect in custody has described being in touch with Pakistani handlers during the operation, according to Indian officials, and Lakhvi was among those named by investigators.

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laura.king@latimes.com

Josh Meyer and Greg Miller in our Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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