Pakistani authorities said Sunday that they had launched a manhunt for a suspect in an alleged plot to blow up trans-Atlantic jetliners who escaped from police custody a day earlier under murky circumstances.
Senior Pakistani officials did not confirm the escape of Rashid Rauf, a Briton of Pakistani origin, until nearly 24 hours after he fled Saturday. He was reportedly able to pick the lock on his handcuffs and overcome his guards after appearing in court in the capital, Islamabad.
Rauf’s escape was a blow because of his value as a source of intelligence and evidence in the court case against the accused airline plotters, a British anti-terrorism official said Sunday.
Two Western diplomats in Pakistan, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the official Pakistani account of Rauf’s alleged escape was incomplete and contained contradictions on key points. That, they said, could fuel suspicions of official complicity in the getaway.
The escape came as Britain was seeking Rauf’s extradition in a separate case involving a 2002 slaying in Birmingham, after Pakistani courts dropped terrorism charges against him. Officials said Rauf, arrested in Pakistan in August 2006, had been expected to be sent back to Britain soon.
The British High Commission said it had requested a full accounting of the events surrounding Rauf’s escape. Britain’s relations with President Pervez Musharraf’s government have been strained over his declaration of emergency rule last month. That led to Pakistan’s suspension last month by the Commonwealth, a group made up mainly of former British colonies.
The decree, imposed Nov. 3, was lifted Saturday.
Pakistan’s caretaker interior minister, Hamid Nawaz, briefed British officials on the case, the Interior Ministry said. Kamal Shah, the ministry’s No. 2 official, said Sunday that it was unclear whether Rauf managed to flee from the court complex after his hearing or after he and guards had left for the jail in Rawalpindi, next to Islamabad.
Special security teams in several areas of the country had been assigned to track Rauf down, Shah said.
“We are doing our best to re-arrest him,” said a ministry spokesman.
Lower-ranking Pakistani officials first reported the escape Saturday. They said two police officers who had been guarding Rauf had been suspended and were being questioned.
Rauf was initially described by investigators as a mastermind of the alleged plot to use liquid explosives to blow up airliners en route from Britain to the United States, but officials later backed off on the magnitude of his role.
The uncovering of the alleged airline plot triggered a worldwide security alert and was responsible for the new tight restrictions on liquid items allowed in carry-on luggage.
Rauf had been fighting extradition in the 2002 murder case, which was unrelated to the airline plot. His lawyer, Hashmat Habib, suggested to Pakistani reporters that Pakistani authorities had been reluctant to hand him over to Britain.
In the months that the alleged bombing scheme was taking shape, Rauf helped the British plotters reach Pakistani training camps, British and U.S. investigators said. He is also suspected of serving as a liaison to masterminds in Pakistan who oversaw what is considered the most ambitious Al Qaeda plot since Sept. 11.
British investigators wanted to use the extradition for the murder case as a way to get Rauf back to Britain. Once extradited, he would have been tried first on the murder charges, but police intended to subject him to a thorough interrogation about the airline plot, the counter-terrorism official said.
Pakistani agents interrogated Rauf for at least four days after his arrest, but the statements he made are viewed with caution because of the possibility that they were obtained through torture, the official said. British investigators wanted to question him on British soil to ensure that the evidence would not be perceived as tainted in any way, the official said.
Rauf’s case was a source of friction between the U.S. and Britain at the time of his arrest. Although British and American investigators worked closely together, British detectives initially resisted U.S. pressure for Rauf’s capture, preferring to continue a massive surveillance operation involving two dozen suspects to gather more evidence.
But U.S. counter-terrorism agents pushed Pakistan to make the arrest, officials say. Word of Rauf’s capture spurred the plotters in Britain to speed up their preparations and British police decided to round up the suspects.
At the time of the arrests, the plotters were weeks away from attempting the attack, which would have targeted half a dozen planes and could have matched the bloodshed of Sept. 11, U.S. and British counter-terrorism officials said.