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Pakistan: Senior Al-Qaeda Operative Thought To Be In U.S. Custody

Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf says a man arrested last week in Pakistan and transferred to the custody of the United States is thought to be Abu Zubaydah -- one of the top-ranking members of the Al-Qaeda network.

Prague, 2 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Pakistani military ruler General Pervez Musharraf confirmed today that a man thought to be Abu Zubaydah -- the top operational commander of the Al-Qaeda terrorist network -- has been arrested in Pakistan and transferred to the custody of the United States.

Musharraf made the remarks during a press conference today in Kabul. He said he is not 100 percent certain that the detained man is Zubaydah. But he confirmed that the suspect was among more than 20 mostly Arab foreigners who were arrested last week in a joint operation with U.S. law enforcement officials in Faisalabad and Lahore.

"The United States is feeling very comfortable operating with us. And we've done a number of actions where people have come, Al-Qaeda members have come in [to Pakistan], and we've got hold of them and we've jointly interrogated them and jointly taken action. It is a well-coordinated tactical action at the tactical level going on."

Musharraf says the cooperation between Washington and Islamabad within Pakistan has not involved the use of ground troops from U.S.-led coalition forces that are based in neighboring Afghanistan.

"We haven't been asked by the United States to allow [U.S. forces] to get in [to Pakistan]. I think doing that is not in the coalition's interest and not in Pakistan's interest. We have our forces on the borders and there is excellent communication between the coalition forces, U.S. forces and Pakistani forces -- excellent communication at the strategic level and at the tactical level."

If Zubaydah has, in fact, been arrested, it would make him the highest-ranking member of Al-Qaeda in U.S. custody. He has been described as a top-ranking recruiter for the group as well as a member of Osama bin Laden's close inner circle.

The 31-year-old Zubaydah -- a Palestinian born in Saudi Arabia -- also has been linked to at least five Al-Qaeda terrorist plots, including the 11 September attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

Other captured Al-Qaeda operatives have said Zubaydah also organized unsuccessful plots to blow up Los Angeles International Airport and the Radisson SAS Hotel in Amman, Jordan.

A Jordanian military court in 2000 found Zubaydah guilty in absentia of conspiracy to carry out terrorist attacks. That court sentenced Zubaydah to death.

Zubaydah also has been linked to unsuccessful plots since 11 September to blow up the U.S. embassies in Paris and Sarajevo.

U.S. officials say they are investigating Zubaydah's links to the 2000 attack on the USS Cole and the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice recently described Zubaydah as a "very dangerous character." She said U.S. authorities have been following Zubaydah's trail for a long time.

Other U.S. officials say Zubaydah has led an effort to reorganize Al-Qaeda in Pakistan since the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan began last year.

U.S. officials say privately that they are almost certain the suspect now in their custody is Zubaydah. But when asked yesterday to confirm those reports, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld refused to comment one way or the other.

Rumsfeld said he has no doubt that Zubaydah is a close associate of bin Laden and is among the senior ranks of Al-Qaeda -- possibly even recently becoming the network's second in command.

But Rumsfeld said announcing anything about Zubaydah would serve no constructive purpose for the United States at this time. He said such announcements could only help Al-Qaeda members who are still being hunted.

Rumsfeld also said he has no new information about where Al-Qaeda leader bin Laden may be hiding.

That view was shared today by Musharraf, who said he does not have any confirmed information on bin Laden's whereabouts. Despite Washington's repeated insistence that the Al-Qaeda leader is still alive and in hiding, Musharraf said he thinks bin Laden is probably dead.

"Nobody has access to him [and] nobody has information on him, [so] I thought probably he is dead. Now I really can't be sure. He may be dead or alive. I don't know. But if you ask my view, maybe he is dead."

Musharraf downplayed suggestions that bin Laden may have fled from Afghanistan to Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province.

"Right from the beginning, I was placing less probability [on Osama bin Laden being] outside of Afghanistan because I thought he would like to move with his own personal security -- with all the Al-Qaeda people around him. Certainly, he wouldn't like to go with an entourage of thousands of Al-Qaeda people around in other countries. He would be too obvious. He would be located. And therefore, it wouldn't be very practical for him."

Meanwhile, Pakistani police say 16 more men were arrested in Lahore overnight on suspicion of having links to Al-Qaeda. Most of those suspects are said to be foreigners of Arab descent who until recently had been living in Afghanistan.