ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- In a new blow to Al Qaeda, authorities in the United Arab Emirates captured a senior operative in Osama bin Laden's terrorist network who trained thousands of militants for combat, and turned him over to Pakistan, the information minister said yesterday.
Qari Saifullah Akhtar was flown to the eastern city of Lahore, where he was being interrogated, a Pakistani intelligence official said on condition of anonymity.
Pakistan, a key ally of Washington its war on terror, has arrested about 20 Al Qaeda suspects in less than a month -- including a top figure sought by the United States. The arrests prompted a series of raids in Britain and uncovered past Al Qaeda surveillance in the United States.
Akhtar once ran a vast terrorist camp in Rishkhor, Afghanistan, that was visited by bin Laden and Taliban chief Mullah Mohammed Omar. The camp -- a complex of shattered barracks and dusty fields about 10 miles south of the capital, Kabul -- trained 3,500 men in combat skills, including assassination and kidnapping.
Akhtar disappeared in the hours before the United States started bombing Afghanistan in October 2001, and he had not been heard from since.
"Yes, we can confirm that we have Qari Saifullah," Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said.
He said Akhtar was arrested in Dubai "in the past week" and then turned over to Pakistan, but he would not elaborate on the arrest.
Officials in Dubai had no comment.
In Washington, the head of the White House's office of counter-terrorism said that Akhtar's arrest was significant and that he is thought to have been involved in two attempts last December to assassinate President General Pervez Musharraf.
The arrest is "very important, particularly for Pakistan," Fran Townsend said on "FOX News Sunday."
"He's wanted in connection with the two assassination attempts on President Musharraf. He was also involved in the training camps in Afghanistan," Townsend said. But Ahmed, the information minister, said it was "premature" to link Akhtar to the assassination attempts.
Akhtar is said to have been active in several Kashmiri militant groups, including the Harakat-ul-Jehad-e-Islami, whose Muslim fighters have fought as far afield as Chechnya and Bosnia.
"He had a hand in various cases," Ahmed said of Akhtar, without elaborating.
Pakistan's Geo television reported yesterday that authorities had arrested Kashmiri militant Maulana Fazl-ur Rahman Khalil on charges he was sending militants to Afghanistan to join the Taliban.
Khalil is said to be the leader of Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen, a group linked to Harakat-ul-Jehad-e-Islami and one of several Kashmiri militant groups banned by Musharraf for having alleged ties to Al Qaeda.
He also helped organize a secret 1998 trip by about a dozen Pakistani journalists to interview bin Laden in Khost, Afghanistan -- among the last interviews granted by the terror leader.
Senior government ministers had no comment on the Geo report, which did not say when or where Khalil was arrested.
Ahmed said the arrest of Akhtar was not linked to the recent capture of two other Al Qaeda operatives, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani and Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan. Information gleaned from those two arrests helped lead to a terror warning in the United States and a sweep in Britain that has netted about a dozen suspects.
On Saturday it was reported that Pakistani agents working closely with US officials are searching for two North African associates of Ghailani. Ghailani, a Tanzanian, had a $25 million US bounty on his head for his suspected involvement in the 1998 bombings of US embassies in East Africa that killed more than 200 people, including 12 Americans.
The hunt for a Libyan named Abu Farj and an Egyptian named Hamza began with a tip from Khan, an Al Qaeda computer specialist who helped Pakistani police arrest Ghailani and whose computer contained photographs of potential targets for attack in the United States and Britain.
"Yes, our security agencies are looking for Abu Farj and Hamza, but I have no details," a senior government official said on condition of anonymity.
Another security official confirmed that Pakistani intelligence agents were searching for the pair.
It was not clear when Farj and Hamza entered Pakistan, where they came from, where they went, or what they were doing.
Two South Africans arrested with Ghailani on July 25 had just arrived from the United Arab Emirates, and several other Al Qaeda suspects are believed to have traveled through there as well.
British authorities last Tuesday conducted a sweep in and around London that netted 13 suspects, including a man known as Abu Eisa al-Hindi or Abu Musa al-Hindi, believed to be a senior Al Qaeda member plotting an attack on London's Heathrow Airport.