Pakistan arrest AQ number 3

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ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistani security forces, with help from U.S. intelligence, have arrested al Qaeda's third most senior leader after Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahri, Western intelligence sources said on Wednesday.

Pakistan says Abu Faraj Farj al Liby, whom it has said is a Libyan, was the ringleader behind at least two assassination attempts against President Pervez Musharraf in December 2003.

Liby is not on the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation's "most wanted" list but is believed to have taken over the role of the arrested Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who allegedly masterminded the September 11, 2001, attacks on U.S. cities.

"Al Liby is a top general for (Osama) bin Laden. He was a major facilitator and a chief planner for the al Qaeda network. His arrest removes a dangerous enemy who was a direct threat to America and to those who love freedom," U.S. President George W. Bush said on Wednesday, before going on to praise Pakistan.

A U.S. counter-terrorism official in Washington said: "He is the third most important after bin Laden and Zawahri. It's a significant blow to the group."

"After he (Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) disappeared from the scene, Faraj took on some of his leadership responsibilities and was instrumental in directing al Qaeda operations globally, including attacks against the homeland."

The official said U.S. human intelligence played a critical role in Liby's capture.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the importance of this breakthrough could become more apparent in the coming days.

"I think that over the next couple of days, we will be able to describe that this is a truly significant arrest," she told reporters in Washington.

Pakistan's Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao told reporters Liby was caught a few days ago.

"The arrest of this man will lead to new routes against terrorism," Sherpao said, with hopes high that more arrests would be made soon.

But he said it was premature to say whether Liby could lead security forces to bin Laden or Zawahri, but intelligence sources said he was the man most likely to know their whereabouts.

Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed hailed Liby's arrest as the most important since those of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, caught in March 2003, and Abu Zubaydah, the al Qaeda operations chief caught a year earlier, also in Pakistan.

Intelligence officials gave several differing versions of where Liby was arrested, including the southern port city of Karachi and the troubled tribal region of South Waziristan.

But according to the most detailed account he was caught during a raid on Monday morning in North West Frontier Province.

Security officers said Liby surrendered with four others after being tear-gassed in a house near Mardan, a town 110 km (68 miles) northwest of Islamabad.

BIG CASH REWARD

Musharraf, an ally in the U.S.-led war against terrorism, survived two assassination attempts in December 2003. Several arrests and convictions have been made in the case, including of low-ranking military personnel.

Pakistan had offered a 20 million rupee (around $340,000) reward for information leading to the arrest of Liby, who was believed to have enlisted Pakistanis to carry out the attacks.

Sherpao said Washington had offered a $10 million dollar reward for Liby, but that he was not on the U.S. "most wanted" list. A namesake, Anas al-Liby, wanted in connection with the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa, is on the list.

An Interior Ministry photograph of the captured militant showed a bearded man suffering from a skin ailment akin to vitiligo, which causes blotchiness due to loss of pigmentation. The photograph contrasted sharply with one released a year ago which showed a bearded Liby looking smart in a collar and tie.

PEARL MURDER LINK

Sherpao said Liby was linked to Amjad Farooqi, a Pakistani militant killed by security forces in a shootout in southern Pakistan last September, who had figured in the Musharraf plots.

Farooqi was also involved in the kidnapping and murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl in Karachi in 2002, and was associated with several Sunni Muslim Pakistani militant groups that shared similar world views to bin Laden's al Qaeda.

Musharraf says Pakistan has broken the back of terrorism in the country, killing and arresting hundreds of militants. Attacks have fallen off recently, as the military continues to apply pressure in tribal areas close to the Afghan border.
 

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