Pakistani authorities warned yesterday that the murder of the American journalist Daniel Pearl may have been part of a wider plot to undermine the US war on terrorism, and an attempt to destabilise President Pervez Musharraf's pro-Western military government.
Investigators believe the men who kidnapped Mr Pearl in Karachi on 23 January intended to kill him from the start, and that the horrific, ritualistic manner in which he was butchered on camera was carefully planned to maximise the shock waves that his death would cause.
Pakistan's interior ministry warned foreign embassies to boost their security, and said further attacks on US citizens or interests could not be ruled out. The warning was prompted by statements from the suspected mastermind of the Pearl kidnapping and murder, the British-born militant Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, who told investigators in custody that one of the targets his group had considered was the US consulate in Karachi.
Mr Saeed, who heads a group called the National Movement for the Restoration of Pakistani Sovereignty, is one of four suspected kidnappers now in custody. Pakistani officials are looking for at least four more, including the men they believe carried out Mr Pearl's murder.
Security was heightened yesterday at the Karachi detention centre where three of the four men are being held because authorities feared that other members of the kidnapping gang might try to eliminate their former comrades before they revealed too many of the group's secrets.
It still was not clear where and when Mr Pearl was killed, and there was no trace of his body. According to Pakistani police, Mr Saeed suggested he was murdered on 31 January, 24 hours after the last ultimatum was issued by his kidnappers. Mr Saeed learned of the killing in a coded telephone message on 5 February; investigators have not ruled out the possibility that his comments in court at the time might themselves have been a coded message to the killers to carry out their mission.
The murder was captured on video tape and made public on the eve of the Muslim holiday, Eid al-Adha, when sheep are ritually slaughtered by having their throats slit before being roasted. Mr Pearl, too, had his throat slit – a symbolic parallel that investigators believe was deliberate.
President Musharraf vowed, in a television address on Friday night, to deal with Mr Pearl's abductors with an "iron hand".
* A new poll for the BBC's On The Record today reveals a growing anti-American feeling on the Labour backbenches, writes Jo Dillon. Of 101 MPs surveyed, 86 said they did not agree with President George Bush that Iran, Iraq and North Korea constituted an "axis of evil". The same number said there was insufficient evidence to justify a military attack on Iraq, and 78 did not want the Government to allow the Americans to use British facilities as part of the proposed missile defence system.
But Tony Blair, speaking at the left-of-centre Progressive Governments Group meeting in Stockholm, insisted the US-led coalition was still strong and there had been "full consultation at every stage".Reuse content