Pakistani authorities were hunting yesterday for a British-Pakistani man suspected in an alleged al-Qaeda plot to blow up US-bound planes after he escaped, a deep embarrassment to the government of President Pervez Musharraf.
Rashid Rauf fled on Saturday after appearing before a judge at a court in the capital Islamabad in connection with an inquiry before his extradition to Britain, Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema said.
"We are urgently seeking clarification of what happened," said Laura Davies, a spokeswoman for the British High Commission in Islamabad.
Police said on Saturday Rauf managed to open his handcuffs and evade two police guards who were taking him back to jail in nearby Rawalpindi. The two police officers have been arrested and are being investigated, Cheema said.
Rauf's apparent escape came as Musharraf lifted six weeks of emergency rule that he had justified in part on grounds of fighting Islamic extremism.
Rauf, who is of Pakistani origin, was arrested in August of last year on a tip from British investigators. Pakistan has described him as a key suspect in a purported plot to blow up jetliners flying from Britain to the US which prompted a major security alert at airports worldwide and increased restrictions on carryon items.
Rauf denied involvement in the plot to assemble and detonate improvised explosives on board as many as 10 US-bound planes. Seventeen suspects have been charged in Britain, some with conspiracy to murder and preparing acts of terrorism.
A "high-powered" inquiry team of police and Interior Ministry officials has been set up to investigate how Rauf managed to escape and "who is to blame," Cheema said.
Police are hunting for Rauf and "we are trying to relocate him," he said.
Rauf had been arrested and charged in Pakistan with possessing chemicals that could be used in making explosives and with carrying forged travel documents.
The prosecution later withdrew the case against him, though he remained in jail awaiting a decision on the British extradition request.
Britain had asked Pakistan to hand him over in connection with a 2002 murder inquiry in Britain that is separate from the alleged terrorism plot. But Rauf's lawyer, Hashmat Habib, has sought to block the move, saying the two countries do not have an extradition treaty and that Rauf had already been found innocent of involvement in terrorism.
Members of Rauf's family have appealed to Pakistani authorities to release him, saying he is innocent and desperate to remain with his wife and two daughters.
Habib on Sunday described Rauf's reported escape as a "mysterious disappearance," claiming that perhaps Pakistani authorities did not want to hand him over to Britain.
He said he doubted that Rauf would have been able to break a tight police guard on him.
"He was under tight security ... how it was possible that he escaped like that?" Habib said.
Rauf's father, reached in Birmingham, 320km north of London, said Saturday he did not know about his son's escape.
"I don't know anything -- I'm shocked," Abdul Rauf said.
The British government this week denied media reports that Rauf was to be extradited from Pakistan as part of a secret deal involving the arrest in Britain of suspects wanted by Pakistan.
Two men accused of inciting terrorism and murder in Pakistan and of having links with an international terrorist group were ordered held in custody in London on Tuesday.
Faiz Baluch, 25, and Hyrbyair Marri, 39 -- both of London -- were arrested last week and jointly charged under Britain's Terrorism Act. Both claim they are peaceful activists calling for the independence of Baluchistan, a troubled province of Pakistan.
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