Islamabad, Dec. 16 (Agencies): A Briton suspected in an alleged plot to bomb aircraft flying from Heathrow has escaped from police custody in Pakistan, a deep embarrassment to the government of President Pervez Musharraf.
Rashid Rauf fled yesterday after appearing before a judge at a court in Islamabad in connection with an inquiry before his extradition to Britain, interior secretary Kamal Shah said.
“We are urgently seeking clarification of what happened,” said Laura Davies, a spokesperson for the British High Commission in Islamabad.
The police said Rauf managed to open his handcuffs and evade two guards who were supposed to take him back to jail in nearby Rawalpindi.
“We are still trying to ascertain where he managed to escape,” Shah said, adding it was unclear if Rauf slipped away at the court complex or en route to the jail. “The two constables are being interrogated for their criminal negligence.”
He said several security teams were combing different parts of the country to find Rauf.
“This is very sensitive matter. Therefore, we have formed an extremely high-level team to investigate and file a report within three days,” Shah said.
Rauf’s apparent escape came as Musharraf lifted six weeks of emergency.
Rauf, who is of Pakistani origin, was arrested here in August 2006 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 carry-on items.
He had been charged with possessing chemicals that could be used in making explosives and with carrying forged travel documents.
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 dual citizen of Britain and Pakistan, Rauf is married to a relative of Maulana Masood Azhar, the head and founder of Jaish-e-Mohammed, an Islamist militant group in Pakistan that has been linked to al-Qaida. The prosecution later withdrew the case against Rauf, 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 separate from the alleged terrorism plot. But Rauf’s lawyer, Hashmat Habib, sought to block the move, saying the two countries do not have an extradition treaty.
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 described Rauf’s reported escape as a “mysterious disappearance,” claiming that perhaps Pakistani authorities did not want to hand him over to Britain. “He was under tight security.… how it was possible that he escaped like that'” Habib said.
Rauf’s father was reached in Birmingham. “I don’t know anything — I’m shocked,” Abdul Rauf said by telephone.
The UK had denied reports that Rauf was to be extradited from Pakistan as part of a secret deal involvi- ng the arrest in Britain of suspects wanted by Pakistan.