ISLAMABAD/KABUL, (Reuters) – Pakistani security forces captured one of the Taliban’s three top leaders just hours after U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney’s unannounced visit to Pakistan earlier this week, a senior security official and Taliban sources said.
The capture of Mullah Obaidullah Akhund marked the first Pakistani arrest of a senior leader of the Islamist militia since it was driven from power in Afghanistan in 2001 and thousands of its fighters fled into Pakistan.
The sources told Reuters that Akhund, the third most senior member of the Taliban’s leadership council, was arrested late on Monday in the southwestern city of Quetta.
The arrest comes at a time when the Bush administration is facing a wave of scepticism over Pakistan’s role as an ally in the war on terrorism.
Pakistani government and military spokesmen said they had no knowledge of the arrest, including one official who had earlier denied it.
The New York Times, however, carried a report on its Web site, saYING U.S. officials in Washington had confirmed Akhund was being held.
Friday’s edition of Dawn, a leading Pakistani daily, ran a front-page story, again sourced to an unnamed official, with a headline that read: “Mullah Omar’s deputy Obaidullah captured”. Taliban spokesman Qari Mohammad Yousaf told Afghan Islamic Press, a Pashtun-language news agency based in Peshawar, that it was a false rumour.
But at the end of 2006 the Taliban denied for more than a week that a U.S. air strike had killed Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Osmani, a senior commander, in December, before confirming his death.
Cheney had asked Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to do more to stop al Qaeda rebuilding from safe havens in Pakistani tribal lands and step up efforts to thwart a spring offensive by the Taliban against Afghan and NATO troops.
The Pakistani security official, whose information has proved reliable in the past but insists on anonymity as he is not authorised to speak, said the timing of Akhund’s arrest was coincidence, and not linked to Cheney’s visit.
Taliban sources, speaking on satellite telephones from undisclosed locations, said Akhund was caught at the home of a relative in the Baluchistan provincial capital. They said two other leaders had been arrested in Quetta this week. Pakistani security officials said five suspects had been detained midweek, but their identities were not confirmed.
Aside from being on the leadership council headed by Mullah Mohammad Omar, Akhund was also defence minister in the Taliban government before it fell. As defence minister, Akhund was believed to have liaised closely with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence during the years when the Taliban ruled in Kabul and could count on Pakistani support. “He wasn’t a commander, but he and Mullah Beradar were key links to commanders in the field,” Ahmed Rashid, a respected Pakistani journalist and author of “Taliban”, a seminal study of the Islamist militia, commented. “He was in the shura (council) and very important.”
While Akhund’s capture would represent a major coup, it sits uneasily with Pakistan’s past denials of allegations that Taliban leaders were running the Afghan insurgency from Quetta. Musharraf said last month that he was “500 percent” sure that Mullah Omar was in Afghanistan, although he admits there are Taliban fighters in Pakistan.
The lack of arrests in the past fed speculation that Pakistani intelligence services or rogue agents have allowed Taliban leaders to operate freely.
Having supported the Taliban prior to al Qaeda’s Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, Pakistan has struggled to shake off suspicions that its spies continue to play a double game in case the West’s commitment to Afghanistan does not last.
U.S. generals have spoken of Taliban “command and control” centres on Pakistani territory. Yet NATO officials have thanked Pakistan for its help in several recent counter-insurgency operations, including the air strike that killed Osmani.