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Pak questions 17, including Britons

In past five years, Pak has captured hundreds of Qaeda fighters and arrested key figures in the network.

india Updated: Aug 12, 2006 20:21 IST

Pakistani intelligence agents were questioning at least 17 people, including British nationals, over their alleged links to a plot to blow up US-bound passenger jets from Britain, officials said on Saturday.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, meanwhile, thanked Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf on Friday for his country's help in breaking up the terror plot, the Foreign Ministry said in Islamabad.

Although Pakistan says its help played a vital role in foiling potentially the biggest terror strike since the 9/11 attacks in America, the arrests on Pakistani soil showed that despite its successes against Al-Qaeda in recent years, it remains a fertile ground for Islamic militancy.

British authorities arrested 24 people on Thursday who were allegedly plotting to bring down as many as 10 airplanes in a nearly simultaneous strike that US officials say was suggestive of an Al-Qaeda operation. The suspects were believed to be mainly British Muslims, at least some of Pakistani ancestry.

Pakistan's Foreign Ministry said on Friday that acting on information earlier received from Britain, Pakistan had made arrests that had triggered the arrests in Britain. It named British national Rashid Rauf as a "key person" who had been nabbed in Pakistan. Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao alleged that Rauf has ties with Al-Qaeda.

Sherpao had no further details, but a security official said Rauf had received money from a British-based organization in connection with the plot and had been sought by Pakistani and British agents for several months. "He (Rashid Rauf) is a close relative of Tayib Rauf," a man arrested in Britain in connection with the alleged plot, said the official, who demanded anonymity.

Foreign Minister Khursheed Kasuri, in an interview with CNN on Friday, confirmed the arrests of seven suspects in Pakistan, including Britons. Another senior government official said they included two Britons of Pakistani origin who had been arrested about a week ago and five Pakistanis detained on an unspecified date all in the eastern city of Lahore and in southern city of Karachi.

A Pakistani intelligence official also said 10 Pakistanis had been arrested on Friday in the district of Bhawalpur, about 500 kilometers (310 miles) southwest of Islamabad, in connection with the terror plot. A second intelligence official confirmed there had been arrests in Bhawalpur, but did not confirm it. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the secretive nature of their job.

On Saturday, intelligence agents were questioning those arrested to determine their exact links to the alleged plot and where they had received financial support, officials said.

Pakistan, a key ally of Britain and the US in the war on terrorism, has been long been regarded as a center of Islamic militancy, much of it linked to events in war-torn Afghanistan next door where it used to support the hardline Taliban regime.

But in the past five years, it has captured hundreds of Al-Qaeda fighters and arrested key figures in Osama bin Laden's terror network. Three of the four suicide attackers in the 11/7 bombings on the London transport system that killed 52 people were British Muslims of Pakistani origin and had visited Pakistan before the attacks.