The man thought to be al-Qaida's head of global operations and the mastermind behind an attempt to assassinate the president of Pakistan was captured by the country's troops after a fierce gun battle in the lawless tribal belt close to the Afghan border, officials said Wednesday night.
In an operation described by George W. Bush as a "a critical victory in the war on terror," Libyan Abu Faraj al-Libbi was seized with another "foreigner" after a fierce firefight on the outskirts of Mardan, 30 miles northeast of Peshawar, the capital of the rugged North West Frontier province. President Bush said Libbi was "a major facilitator and a chief planner" for Osama bin Laden and that his arrest "removes a dangerous enemy."
It recently emerged that U.S. forces have trained Pakistani helicopter pilots and army commandos in tactics to tackle al-Qaida's mountain refuges in the country's tribal area.
Pakistani authorities, who had said they felt they were closing in on Libbi, were quick to capitalize on what they believe is the most important terrorist to be captured since the arrest of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, al-Qaida's purported No. 3, two years ago in Karachi, Pakistan's financial capital.
Libbi allegedly took over as al-Qaida's operational chief after Mohammed's capture. The Pakistani information minister, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, told reporters that Libbi, who was seized on Monday, was "a very big catch" and hinted that Pakistani troops had picked up the trail of bin Laden. "We will be looking at all his links. Our forces are moving toward the right direction."
It was unclear whether U.S. forces would interrogate Libbi. "No, we will keep him with us," replied Ahmed to reporters' questions. He said Libbi was the architect of an attempt to assassinate Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf. "There are cases against him here," he said.
Musharraf narrowly escaped an attempt on his life in the garrison city of Rawalpindi when two car bombers tried to ram their vehicles into his motorcade in December 2003. Fifteen people were killed and 45 injured in the attack, the second attempt on the president in two weeks.
It is accepted that Libbi was linked to Amjad Farooqi, a Pakistani militant killed by security forces in southern Pakistan last September. He had hatched the Musharraf plots, aided the murderers of the U.S. journalist Daniel Pearl and was associated with several hard-line Sunni Muslim Pakistani militant groups.
Pakistan's leadership claims to have broken the back of terrorism in the country, and 700 al-Qaida suspects have been arrested. Most of them have been handed over to the U.S. and taken to Guant´namo Bay.
Some analysts have questioned whether Libbi's importance has been overplayed to mask the failure of U.S. and Pakistani forces to find bin Laden. They say he is not on the FBI's list of the world's most wanted terrorists. "He looks like a middle-ranking al-Qaida individual who had some links with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed," Sajjan Gohel, of the London-based Asia-Pacific Foundation, told the BBC.
Meanwhile, U.S. and Afghan troops backed by jets and helicopters killed about 20 suspected Taliban militants on the day that a new U.S. commander took charge in Afghanistan. One Afghan police officer also died, and six U.S. servicemen were injured during the gun battle Wednesday in Deh Chopan.