By: Kathy Gannon, Associated Press Writer
(AP) The chief suspect in the abduction of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was arrested Tuesday, and an official close to the investigation said the suspect told police Pearl was alive.
Pearl’s whereabouts remain unknown, although police said they believe he is still in Karachi and alive. They did not elaborate. Pearl has been missing for three weeks.
Ahmad Omar Saeed Sheikh, a British-born Islamic militant, was arrested Tuesday afternoon in the eastern city of Lahore and sent to Karachi for questioning, ministry secretary Tasneem Noorani told The Associated Press.
Jamil Yousuf, head of a citizen-police liaison committee, quoted Saeed as saying of Pearl, “He’s alive. He’s OK.”
Saeed, now 27, was freed from an Indian jail in December 1999 in exchange for passengers of an Indian Airlines jet that was hijacked to Kandahar, Afghanistan.
His arrest was announced one day before Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf is to meet President Bush in Washington. The kidnapping embarrassed the Musharraf government, which is seeking U.S. aid as it attempts to combat Muslim extremism in this predominantly Islamic country of 147 million people.
Saeed’s arrest “is a significant achievement in the case,” Noorani said, adding that “we have to wait” to learn about Pearl’s fate.
Lonnie Kelley, spokesman for the U.S. Consulate in Karachi, said American officials had no word on Pearl’s fate and were trying to confirm that Saeed has been arrested. “We are looking into it, but nothing on Daniel yet,” he said.
Steve Goldstein, a vice president and spokesman for Dow Jones, The Wall Street Journal‘s parent company, declined to comment on whether the arrest revealed new information about Pearl’s abduction.
“We continue to remain hopeful,” Goldstein said in a telephone interview. He also declined to comment on specifics of the case.
A team of police officers from the southern province of Sindh had been in Lahore searching for Saeed for the last few days, the government-run news agency Associated Press of Pakistan reported Tuesday.
Police identified Saeed as the prime suspect in the case after arresting three men suspected of sending e-mails that announced Pearl’s kidnapping.
One of the three men who was found to have the e-mails on his laptop computer told investigators that he got them from Saeed, police said. The other two said they had met Saeed in Afghanistan, police said.
Several more arrests were reported in Karachi, Rawalpindi and other major cities Tuesday.
Yousuf, of the citizen-police liaison committee, said the key break came Monday night with the arrest of a suspect in the capital of Islamabad who gave crucial information. Yousuf did not elaborate.
Also Tuesday, the three suspects accused of sending the e-mails announcing Pearl’s abduction were charged with kidnapping and ordered jailed for two more weeks.
Those suspects were brought to Sindh province’s High Court in an armored personnel carrier surrounded by 20 machine-gun toting policemen wearing helmets and bulletproof vests. They were chained together at the waist, their heads and faces covered by shawls and bath towels. They were led into a second-story courtroom but presiding Judge Shabir Ahmed decided to hear their case in his chambers.
The trio had been due in court Monday but proceedings were delayed after officials decided that an anti-terrorism judge, not a civil one, should hear the case.
Pearl, the Journal‘s South Asian bureau chief, was abducted on his way to a Karachi meeting with Islamic extremists. He hoped they would provide information about e-mails exchanged by Pakistani militants and Briton Richard C. Reid, the so-called shoe bomber arrested on a Paris-to-Miami flight in December with explosives in his sneakers.
Four days later, an e-mail sent to Pakistani and international media showed photos of Pearl in captivity and demanded that the United States repatriate Pakistanis captured in Afghanistan and now detained at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
A second e-mail sent Jan. 30 said the 38-year-old reporter would be killed in 24 hours. That was the last known message from his captors.