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Suspected mastermind of Mumbai attacks in custody

Pakistan confirms that a key Lashkar-e-Taiba leader was arrested during a raid on a camp in Kashmir.

December 10, 2008|Henry Chu | Chu is a Times staff writer.

NEW DELHI — A senior Pakistani official Tuesday confirmed the arrest of the suspected mastermind of last month's terrorist attacks in Mumbai as Indian authorities publicly identified all the known assailants as young men from Pakistan.

After a day of contradictory news reports and official silence, Pakistani Defense Minister Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar acknowledged that Zaki ur Rehman Lakhvi had been "picked up" during a raid on a suspected militant camp in the Pakistani-controlled portion of Kashmir.

Lakhvi is a senior commander of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Islamic militant group suspected of carrying out the deadly rampage through hotels and other busy sites last month in Mumbai that left more than 170 people dead.

Mukhtar's confirmation came during an interview with the Indian news channel CNN-IBN, according to a transcript. He said that Maulana Masood Azhar, founder of the outlawed Kashmiri militant group Jaish-e-Muhammad, also had been detained, even though Azhar was merely "a small irritant."

"Our president is determined that we remove all irritants," Mukhtar said. "President Asif Ali Zardari is determined that we must cooperate with India, and we must take the people to task who have done . . . this operation."

The arrests were the strongest actions Pakistan has taken in response to Indian accusations -- backed by the U.S. -- that the Mumbai attacks were launched from Pakistani soil. New Delhi had no comment on the arrests, but Indian officials have criticized Pakistan's previous pattern of arresting militants and quietly releasing them a few months later.

Islamabad officially denies that the gunmen came from Pakistan. However, police in Mumbai released photos Tuesday of eight of the nine militants who were slain in the attack, including gruesome shots of burned or battered faces. The ninth attacker's body was too badly burned to be shown, senior police official Rakesh Maria said.

A 10th man remained in custody.

All 10 were men younger than 30 and from Pakistan, most of them from Punjab province, Maria said. The leader of the group was identified as 25-year-old Ismail Khan from Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province.

Maria also said a second suspect would be brought in for questioning from northern India, along with Faheem Ansari, who was arrested earlier this year and found to be carrying sketches of some of the sites targeted in last month's attacks. Ansari's arrest has raised the possibility that the gunmen had Indian accomplices in the planning stage if not during the attacks.

The Pakistani defense minister's confirmation Tuesday of the arrest of Lakhvi demonstrated the tricky position in which the government in Islamabad finds itself.

The Pakistanis have come under heavy international pressure to pursue Lashkar- e-Taiba, or Army of the Pure, and those suspected of orchestrating the Mumbai attacks. But domestically, to a strongly anti-American public, it risks looking weak and pliant if it complies with those requests.

Those conflicting pressures might explain why Mukhtar confirmed Lakhvi's arrest to an Indian news organization rather than a Pakistani one.

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henry.chu@latimes.com

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