Salem was picked up, most likely from a hotel, yesterday after the American investigators traced some calls he made from New Jersey.
Some of those calls were made to Mumbai, demanding international distribution rights to an Aamir Khan film and accompanied by comments that the Americans found suspicious. That demand is believed to have been turned down.
On October 13, Mumbai police claimed to have shot dead four gangsters who, they alleged, were plotting to murder at least three film personalities, one of them Aamir Khan. Around that time, Khan was touring the US with the Lagaan team.
After listening in on the calls, the Americans have been tracking the movements of Salem, a former henchman of Dawood Ibrahim. Wanted in 20 cases of murders and extortions, Salem now operates out of Nairobi and had come on one of his frequent visits to Sharjah to watch a tri-nation cricket tournament starting tomorrow.
Police in Sharjah are keeping the arrest a secret, as is the home ministry in Delhi. Asked about Salem’s arrest, home secretary Kamal Pande held his silence.
Only the minister of state for home, N. Vidyasagar Rao, confirmed it on television. He said the home ministry would brief the media later. It did no such thing.
Mumbai police, basking in perceived success, are preparing to despatch a team to Sharjah with Salem’s fingerprints.
News of the arrest spread after Maharashtra deputy chief minister Chhagan Bhujbal announced it on TV yesterday.
“I was informed Abu Salem was arrested in Sharjah,” B.S. Mohite, Mumbai joint police commissioner, said today. “I have been asked by the CBI for fingerprint impressions of Abu Salem.”
If the CBI has indeed issued the instruction to Mumbai police, it could not have acted without Delhi’s knowledge.
But senior Central officials would only acknowledge there was a tip-off by Mumbai police to their UAE counterpart that Salem would be at a particular house at a particular time. UAE police organised a raid but no one was found, the officials said.
Salem is one of the main accused in the Mumbai blasts, having fled the city in the wake of the crackdown that followed on the Dawood gang. He was part of Dawood’s team at the time but, after falling out in 1999, has been operating independently. Salem, who, according to Mumbai police, has spread terror in the Mumbai film world, is the prime accused in Gulshan Kumar’s murder.
“Whatever details provided to us of the arrested man point to Salem. But we now need to make it certain with his fingerprint verification,” Mumbai police sources said. The police team would leave for Sharjah the moment it receives the Centre’s green light.
The sources said the state government was in constant touch with the home ministry and expected Delhi’s approval soon. But Delhi is trying to keep the arrest a secret for reasons that are not immediately clear, except for the fact that since the threatening calls were made from New Jersey, the Americans themselves might want Salem.
A joint CBI-Mumbai police team had gone to the UAE early this month to try and get criminals operating from there. Salem was on top of that wanted list. But the team met with no success, hitting a familiar UAE stone wall, though an extradition treaty was signed with that country last year.
There is no reason to believe the UAE authorities have changed their mind so soon on the prodding of Delhi. America can get out of the UAE what India cannot possibly hope to.
If you see this notice at a popular Puja pandal next year, don’t be surprised. Darshan for a price is a practice that has already started, though in a clandestine way.
Tapan and Ashtamita Barman, a couple who lives in Jadavpur, decided on the evening of ashtami to visit the Puja at Bosepukur at Kasba that has become a rage for the past few years.
When they reached the area at 9 pm, the queue snaked several hundred yards. “We stood behind several hundred visitors and it would have taken hours to get near the pandal. Fortunately, we came across a young man who approached with an offer to position us at the head of the queue in exchange for Rs 50.”
By 10.30, the Barmans were back home, having been in and out of the pandal in minutes.
“He (the youth) led us towards the front of the queue and placed us behind 20-25 people taking two boys out (so no one complains),” the Barmans said.
They are not alone. Somnath Chakraborty of Chetla said he bought a place in the front of the queue for Rs 20, but that was at 10.30 pm.
The Bosepukur Puja committee is aghast. Its spokesman Kalyan Khara said: “We have no idea such incidents are taking place. If we receive any such complaints, immediate steps will be taken by our committee.”
No one, it seems, is complaining. Quite the contrary, actually.
At Santosh Mitra Square, for instance, guest cards are being sold. The Puja committee has issued 800 such cards, which allow visitors to jump the queue. “Eighty per cent of them have been sold at different prices,” said chief organiser Pradip Ghosh.
If this is not “ticket katun, pujo dekhun”, what is?
Ghosh realises that. “Learning from experience, I have decided to raise a proposal to sell special cards next year,” he said.
Selling 10,000 such cards at Rs 50 apiece will mean an income of Rs 5 lakh for the Puja committee, he added.
The minister for fire services, Pratim Chatterjee, responsible for monitoring safety in Puja pandals, believes cards or tickets will help control crowds.
Shiloo Chattopadhyay, chairman of TNS-Mode, which does market surveys, believes “the fee should be linked to the popularity of the Puja and the time of entry.”
Police commissioner Sujay Chakravorty said: “It is a good suggestion.The possibility can be explored.” The police do not see a problem if Puja committees follow rules for selling cards.
Chattopadhyay is suggesting a graded structure. For instance, a fee of Rs 10 in the morning and Rs 50 in the evening. There could even be free hours for people who cannot pay for the right to visit.
Besides, Bosepukur will charge one price and the Puja next door possibly no price at all. Depending entirely on demand.
“This system will make the Pujas more market-oriented. It will lead to healthy competition and, if properly handled, can pave the way for the Pujas becoming a major national, if not international, event,” said Chattopadhyay.
He suggests a slot when only foreign tourists will be allowed into the pandal. “This can then become an important part of the travel plan sold to a foreigner visiting Calcutta.”
Mayor Subrata Mukherjee was at first hesitant to give his opinion, but said: “I cannot reject the idea either.”
India and the Northern Alliance working together gave the Americans crucial details of Harkat-ul Mujahideen networks within Afghanistan. That information helped the US Air Force to target a Harkat safe house in Kabul on Tuesday, according to informed sources.
Harkat is now claiming that 35 of its fighters — not 22 as reported earlier — were killed in that targeted attack on the safe house, according to Muzamal Shah, a leader of the group.
“We have the names of 20 people who died in the attack,” he said in Karachi. Most belonged to Karachi or Pakistan’s provinces bordering Afghanistan, he said.
Harkat is listed by the US state department as a terrorist outfit based in Pakistan and operating in Kashmir. Its assets were frozen under a White House order last month.
Tuesday’s attack yielded the single biggest harvest of terrorists so far since the US military operation against Afghanistan started on October 7.
Earlier, Indian intelligence information linking former Pakistani spy chief General Mehmood Ahmed and September 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta enabled Americans to prod Islamabad into removing Ahmed.
Indian intelligence details passed on to Washington showed that the $100,000 wired to Atta by Pakistani terrorist Umer Shaikh had originally come from Ahmed, when he was head of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the espionage outfit run by Pakistan’s army.
The deaths of Pakistanis in Tuesday’s bombing raids have embarrassed General Pervez Musharraf.
Yesterday, Pakistani guards at the Torkham border-crossing in Khyber Pass refused to allow the bodies of the men killed in the attack to be brought in for burial.
Noor Mohammed Hanifi, the Taliban’s security chief, was quoted by the militia’s news agency as saying that the guards told Harkat supporters: “You wanted to fight with the Taliban, then you can bury your dead in Afghanistan.”
The bodies were then smuggled into Pakistan at unguarded points along the border. The ease with which the bodies were smuggled in is, however, worrying the Americans because a porous border can destabilise US efforts to decimate the Taliban.
In Karachi, mourners shouted slogans against the US and Musharraf at the funeral of the leader of the Harkat group which went in to Afghanistan, adds AFP.
About 2,000 people attended the burial of commander Farooq, whose body was one of eight that were smuggled in. The mourners vowed revenge for the deaths of Farooq and the other militants.
India today said the burial in Karachi confirmed the nexus between Pakistani terrorist organisations and their mentors in Afghanistan.
“Don’t you think Osama is a respected leader in the Islamic world?” Kasem, the interviewer, had asked Masood in French. The Lion of the Panjsher, Massod – the legendary leader of Afghanistan’s anti-Taliban Northern Alliance — had smiled at the question. But before he could answer, the “reporter” detonated explosives strapped around his waist and the video camera filming the interview also blew up.
Afghanistan’s ambassador to India, Masood Khalili, was present in that room, but lost consciousness after the blasts. When he returned to his senses, he found himself in a helicopter with Masood lying next to him. “I will never forget the face of my friend stained with blood,” Khalili said in Delhi today.
“There is no doubt in my mind that it was Osama bin Laden who masterminded the killing.” The suicide attack on Masood took place two days before the passenger jets were crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Khalili, who represents Burhanuddin Rabbani’s Northern Alliance government that controls about 10 per cent of the country, returned to India on Monday after treatment in various hospitals, but mostly in Germany.
At this afternoon’s crowded news conference at the Afghan embassy, he came strapped to a wheelchair. His face bore marks of the suicide bombing and the trauma of losing a friend.
Almost blind in his right eye and his right leg still in plaster, the nightmare visits and revisits him. “Every middle of the night the incident comes to me, whether I am dreaming or in a half-dream.”
“We believe it was a global terrorist network of Osama bin Laden and some others who killed Commander Masood,” he said.
“It will not be easy for the Americans to capture Osama. But even if they manage to do that, it will be more difficult for them to destroy the terrorist network. There are many more Osamas in different parts of the world.”
The two assassins of Masood had been camping in Khwaja Bahauddin for over a fortnight, before they were granted the interview. “We are always open with journalists, but there was something about these two that was amiss,” Khalili recalled.
Kasem, the short and older of the two, was accompanied by a taller youth carrying a TV camera. The interviewer had a blue file with him containing the questions he was to ask. Asked which organisation they represented, the duo admitted that they were not from the media, but from a London-based Islamic centre.
The camera was placed too low, making Khalili, who was sitting next to Masood, wonder: “Are they going to shoot our belly or our face?”
The cameraman backed a few feet away from the camera when this was pointed out to him. “When I looked at him he had a nasty smile,” Khalili said.
Kasem was made to read out his questions before the camera rolled. They were in French and Masood asked Khalili to translate. The questions ran thus: Why are you against Osama bin Laden? Why do you call him a killer? If you take Kabul, what will you do with him?
But before Khalili could translate the first question, “there was a big sound and the entire room was thrown into darkness”.
Khalili said: “Smoke was billowing out of the camera.” He could feel a sharp pain wracking his body and before he fell unconscious he heard Masood shouting to someone in the room to take Khalili out.
A few hours later Masood died.
Khalili thinks it was Masood who saved his life. He had asked Khalili to always carry his passport.
That night the passport was in the left pocket of his shirt. Hours after the incident, when his shirt was taken off at the field hospital, doctors found eight pieces of shrapnel stuck in the pages of the passport.
Officials are trying to schedule a meeting between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Vajpayee when the Indian leader flies back from the US to discuss the post-conflict political structure in Afghanistan.
Vajpayee will be in Russia from November 4 to 7 to attend the annual summit meeting with President Vladimir Putin. From Moscow, he is scheduled to leave for Washington.
The Indian Prime Minister has been invited to a “working visit” on November 9 by President George W. Bush. Vajpayee is then scheduled to go to New York to address the United Nations General Assembly and return home.
However, since it is a long haul from the US to India, there is a necessity for a technical halt somewhere in between.
Three European cities, London, Zurich and Amsterdam, are being thought of for this halt. However, there is now a possibility that the Prime Minister may stop at London.
Officials of both the countries feel that it may not be a bad idea for Vajpayee to turn his technical halt in London into a working visit with the British Prime Minister.
Blair and Vajpayee had met earlier this month when the British Prime Minister visited Delhi during his trip to South Asia.
The United Kingdom has turned out to be one of the most vocal and active world players to build the international coalition against terrorism in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in the US.
Since one of the thrusts of Vajpaee’s visit next month to Russia and the US will be on ascertaining the views of the leadership there and to try to find a common ground with them on the post-Taliban political structure in Kabul, South Block feels that it will be to its advantage if it enlists the support of Britain.
However, a final decision in adding London as the third leg of the Prime Minister’s visit next month will be taken only tomorrow after consultations with London.
In Washington, secretary of state Colin Powell has said Pakistan cannot again “foist a government of its choice” in post-Taliban Afghanistan. “The next government of Afghanistan cannot be dictated by Pakistan,” Powell said.
Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf is advocating inclusion of moderate Taliban members in a post-war dispensation. Powell said Pakistan has a passing interest in Afghanistan because of its proximity, but it “cannot do what it did before, namely foisting a government of their choice.”
India claims Pak link
India today said the burial of eight bodies of Harkat-ul Mujahideen militants in Pakistan confirmed the link between Pakistani terrorist organisations and their mentors in Afghanistan. The militants had been killed in US-led strikes on Afghanistan.
The return of the bodies and their burial in Pakistan were evidence enough of the militants’ Pakistani origin, an external affairs ministry spokesperson said.