US attempted to extradite Pearl kidnap suspect

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The US requested the extradition of the man arrested over the murder of Daniel Pearl just two days before the journalist was abducted, it was revealed yesterday. It also emerged for the first time that his killers may have links with al-Qa'ida.

The US ambassador in Islamabad, Wendy Chamberlin, requested that British-born Ahmed Omar Sheikh be handed over to the American authorities for questioning about a 1994 kidnapping case.

Before Pakistan could act on the request, Mr Pearl was abducted on 23 January. Last week, Pakistani and US investigators revealed that a videotape they had been handed showed that Mr Pearl, 38, had been executed. His decapitated body has not been recovered.

Speaking on CBS'sThe Early Show, Ms Chamberlin called Mr Sheikh a "nasty character". She said: "He's been involved in kidnappings and crimes against American citizens for many years. He's someone that we've had our eye on for many years."

Ms Chamberlin said she was likely to bring up the topic again at a meeting today with Pakistan's leader, General Pervez Musharraf. Pakistan does not have an extradition treaty with the United States.

The request in January for Mr Sheikh's extradition related to a kidnapping in which three Britons and an American were taken hostage in India by Islamic militants, The New York Times reported yesterday.

Mr Sheikh, 27, born in London and a former student at the London School of Economics, was among the group that threatened to execute the tourists if a group of militants being held in Indian jails were not freed. Rhys Partridge, one of the hostages, remembered Mr Sheikh telling him "we have just told the press we're going to behead you". Mr Partridge said: "He was laughing. The prospect excited him. I got to know this guy and I got to know his agenda and I made it very apparent to anyone who would listen that he would continue to do this sort of stuff. He would take hostages again. He would murder people."

Mr Sheikh – who investigators say has admitted he was involved in Mr Pearl's abduction – was held for five years in prison after the 1994 tourist kidnapping. He was eventually released along with two other Islamic militants in 1999 as part of a deal to free 160 passengers being held hostage on a seized Indian Airlines jet.

While in prison, Mr Sheikh met Maulana Masood Azhar, the leader of Harkat ul-Mujahedin, a Pakistan-based group seeking to end Indian rule in the disputed territory of Kashmir. It had been Mr Azhar's release Mr Sheikh and others had been seeking by the kidnapping. When Mr Sheikh and others were released from jail they joined Mr Azhar's new group, Jaish-e-Mohammed, or the Army of Mohammed. Yesterday it emerged that Mr Azhar may have had links with Somali fighters in turn linked to Osama bin Laden, and that he may even be the "smoking gun" that finally proves American suspicions that al-Qa'ida was involved in the 1993 fighting in which 18 members of US special forces were killed in Mogadishu.

Mr Pearl, a reporter with The Wall Street Journal, was kidnapped while investigating Pakistani militant links with the British alleged shoe-bomber, Richard Reid. A court in Karachi yesterday extended the detention of Mr Sheikh and two others arrested over his kidnapping. The suspects complained they were being coerced into making confessions.