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Pak court frees Masood from house arrest

Lahore, Dec. 14 (Reuters): A Pakistani court freed a top leader of a banned Kashmiri militant group from house arrest today and India said that was proof Pakistan continued to support terrorism.

Maulana Masood Azhar of Jaish-e-Mohammad, a group Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf outlawed a year ago for fighting an insurgency in Kashmir, was placed under house arrest in the Punjabi city of Bahawalpur in December, 2001.

Under a Public Safety Act, Azhar’s arrest has come up for review by a special judicial commission every three months.

Today, a three-member review board of the Lahore High Court rejected a request by the Punjab home department to extend Azhar’s detention for another three months, saying there were no grounds to keep him in detention any further.

Masood was one of three men released from an Indian prison in a barter deal with New Delhi after an Indian airliner was hijacked in late 1999 and flown to Kandahar, where the then-ruling Taliban government helped to negotiate a settlement.

“It is quite clear that investigation and charges against Masood Azhar have not been pursued by Pakistani authorities with any seriousness,” an Indian external affairs ministry spokesman said in a statement.

Masood was allowed contact with his cadres when in prison, later conveniently detained at home while his family received money from Pakistan authorities, it said.

“It is quite clear that Pakistan is continuing with the policy of terrorism as an instrument of its state policy, in violation of international law, and its own publicly declared commitments”.

India blames Pakistan for allowing Pakistan-based militant groups to cross into Kashmir to fight an insurgency there that has claimed more than 35,000 lives since 1989.

Pakistan rejects the accusations, saying that it has stopped infiltrations across the heavily militarised Line of Control that separates the nuclear-armed rivals in Kashmir.

But it does offer what it calls the “Kashmiri freedom struggle” diplomatic and political support.

The Indian ministry statement said: “It is well know that al Qaida and Taliban remnants are today largely based in Pakistan, which is the epicentre of terrorism in the world.

“Any strategy which seeks to ignore Pakistan’s own involvement with and sponsorship of terrorism and focuses, even for the short term, only on the unwilling and limited support provided in search of a few of the hard core al Qaida, will never see long term victory”.

It said India will continue to take the necessary steps to safeguard its national security.

Masood was one of three men released from an Indian prison in a barter deal with New Delhi after an Indian airliner was hijacked in late 1999 and flown to Kabul, where the then-ruling Taliban government helped to negotiate a settlement.

The other two men freed by India were Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, also known as Sheikh Omar, convicted this year for the killing of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, and Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar.

Masood also figures in a list of 20 people, along with Sheikh Omar and Zargar, whom the Indian government wants Pakistan to extradite to face charges of terrorism on Indian soil.

Sindh speaker

A pro-military coalition won the key post of speaker in Pakistan’s southern province of Sindh today, clearing the way for it to take power and defeat former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in her traditional stronghold.

Syed Muzaffar Hussain Shah, joint candidate of the pro-military Pakistan Muslim League (PML-QA) and regional ally Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), won 90 votes in the Sindh Assembly, comfortably beating his nearest rival.

Jam Saifullah Dharejo, backed by Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and a coalition of hardline Islamic parties, secured 73 votes in the 168-seat Assembly. The other five seats will be decided by byelections.

The result of weeks of political jockeying means the exiled Bhutto is in Opposition in all four of Pakistan’s provincial assemblies and in the National Assembly.

Today’s result will be particularly bitter for the popular leader, because she was born and raised in Sindh.

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