Al-Qa'ida No 3 is arrested in Pakistan

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Abu Farraj al-Libbi, an al-Qai'da leader wanted for two assassination attempts against Pakistan's President, Pervez Musharraf, has been captured after 17 months on the run.

According to intelligence sources, he is believed tocoordinate Islamist cells in Britain and the US. The arrest was hailed by George Bush as a "critical victory in the war on terror".

The Libyan-born militant, considered to be al-Qai'da's operational chief in Pakistan, was arrested with five other Islamist fighters, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, Pakistan's Information Minister, said. "He's a big catch," Mr Ahmed said. "We will keep him in our custody; he is an important terrorist and he can provide clues for our investigations."

A senior Pakistani intelligence source said details of a money trail that Libbi disclosed under interrogation lead to Europe.

Now considered the number three man in al-Qai'da, Libbi has been thrust into prominence since the arrest more than two years ago in Rawalpindi of Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 11 September 2001 attacks.

Mohammed was quickly handed over to the Americans for interrogation, as were some 700 other al-Qa'ida suspects since Pakistan became an ally in Washington's war on terror. The senior Pakistani intelligence source said Libbi has been held for the past five weeks and was questioned by Pakistani and American agents. He has revealed enough information for Islamabad to plan an imminent "assault against the emirs of al-Qai'da".

This refers to Osama bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian doctor, and Uzbek allies who have been eluding Pakistani forces for a year in the tribal belt between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

A modest $340,000 (£180,000) bounty for Libbi was raised recently to $1m, according to the Pakistan government spokesman, and the increased reward may have helped in his capture. Libbi will be pressed to reveal the whereabouts of Bin Laden, believed to be hiding in the tribal zone close to Waziristan, where Pakistani troops have clashed with local clansmen and foreign militants since 2004. The remaining suspects were Pakistanis, with ties to the Sunni Muslim Lashkar-e-Jhangvi organisation, an armed group said to be linked to al-Qa'ida.

Libbi is accused of attempted murder, after allegedly being behind the two bombs placed on President Musharraf's route in December 2003. The military leader escaped unharmed, but 17 other people were killed.

Meanwhile, a former CIA agent has disclosed that he was sent to Afghanistan 11 days after the 11 September attacks and ordered by the CIA's counter-terrorism chief, Cofer Black, to "capture Bin Laden, kill him and bring his head back in a box on dry ice". The former agent, Gary Schroen, said it was the first time in 30 years of service he had been ordered to kill a target.

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