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Masood Azhar not in our custody: Pak

world Updated: Dec 18, 2008 16:06 IST

Contradicting himself and his own cabinet colleague, Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi has said that the Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Maulana Masood Azhar, one of India's most wanted criminals, has not been arrested and is "still at large".

"Maulana Masood Azhar is wanted by the government of Pakistan, but he is not in our custody and he is at large," Qureshi told state-run APP news agency yesterday.

He said Pakistan has taken "enough steps" to arrest culprits involved in terrorist activities.

Qureshi's remarks came barely an hour-and-half after he accepted the detention of Azhar while speaking to Dawn News channel a little after 9 pm yesterday.

He was asked several pointed questions on whether Azhar was among those who had been detained.Qureshi replied: "Important people that were required have been taken into custody. They are under detention."

When the anchor asked again if these people included Azhar and whether he had been put under house arrest or was in custody, Qureshi said: "Yes, in custody."

Last week, Defence Minister Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar told a TV channel that Azhar had been detained and Islamabad might even allow Indian investigators to question him.

The Pakistan media also reported Azhar's detention at his home in Bahawalpur in Punjab province on December 9.

When reporters asked Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani on December 10 about the whereabouts of Azhar, he merely said he had not received the "latest report" on the case of the militant leader. He did not confirm or deny Azhar's detention.

Azhar and two other terrorists were freed by India in exchange for the passengers of an Indian Airlines flight that was hijacked from Kathmandu to Kandahar in December 1999.

Pakistan's High Commissioner to India Shahid Malik, during an interview this week, said that Azhar has not been detained during the clampdown on militant and terrorist groups after the attacks in Mumbai.

"We are looking for him. He is not under house arrest. As far as I know, it (news reports of Azhar's house arrest) is wrong. He is not in Pakistan... We don't know where he is," Malik told Karan Thapar in 'India Tonight' programme of CNBC-TV18.

In a demarche issued after the Mumbai terror attacks, India had asked Pakistan to hand over Azhar and underworld dons Tiger Memon and Dawood Ibrahim.

Azhar formed the Jaish-e-Mohammed soon after his release.

Pakistan has said it intends to take action against all terror suspects according to the country's laws and will not hand them over to India.