US offers bounty for Pakistan militant Hafiz Saeed

 

The United States has offered a $10 million (£6.2 million) bounty for the founder of the Pakistani militant group blamed for the 2008 attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai that killed 166 people, a move that could complicate US-Pakistan relations at a tense time.

Hafiz Saeed founded Lashkar-e-Taiba in the 1980s, allegedly with Pakistani support to pressure India over the disputed territory of Kashmir.

Pakistan banned the group in 2002 under pressure from the US, but it operates with relative freedom - even doing charity work using government money.

The US designated Lashkar-e-Taiba a foreign terrorist organisation in December 2001.

But Saeed operates openly in Pakistan, giving public speeches and appearing on TV talk shows. The US also offered up to two million dollars (£1.2 million) for Lashkar-e-Taiba's deputy leader, Hafiz Abdul Rahman Makki, who is also Saeed's brother-in-law.

The reward for Saeed is one of the highest offered by the US and is equal to the amount for Taliban chief Mullah Omar. Only Ayman al-Zawahri, who succeeded Osama bin Laden as al Qaida chief, fetches a higher bounty - $25 million (£15.6 million).

The bounties were posted on the US state department rewards for justice website late on Monday, the US embassy in Islamabad said.

The state department website describes Saeed as a former professor of Arabic and engineering who heads an organisation "dedicated to installing Islamist rule over parts of India and Pakistan". It also noted that six of the people killed in the 2008 Mumbai attacks were American citizens.

Indian external affairs minister SM Krishna welcomed the US announcement, saying it would signal to Lashkar-e-Taiba and its patrons that the international community remains united in fighting terrorism.

"The decision reflects the commitment of India and the United States to bring the perpetrators of the Mumbai terrorist attack to justice and continuing efforts to combat terrorism," he said.

A close aide to Saeed said the group was surprised by the decision and was formulating its response.

"Nobody in the Pakistani government talked to us about this, nor has anybody contacted us after this announcement," he said.

The move comes at a particularly tense time in the troubled relationship between the US and Pakistan. Pakistan's parliament is currently debating a revised framework for relations with the US in the wake of American airstrikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in November at two posts along the Afghan border.

Pakistan retaliated by kicking the US out of a base used by American drones and closing its border crossings to supplies meant for Nato troops in Afghanistan.

The US hopes the parliamentary debate will result in Pakistan reopening the supply lines. The closure has been a headache for the US because it has had to spend more money sending supplies through an alternate route that runs through Central Asia. It also needs the route to withdraw equipment as it seeks to pull most of its combat forces out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

But it is unclear whether the US will be willing to meet Pakistan's demands, which include higher transit fees for the supplies and an unconditional apology for the airstrikes, which the US has said were an accident. Pakistan has also demanded an end to American drone strikes in Pakistan, but it is unclear if that will be tied to the reopening of the supply line.

The US state department issued a statement in February expressing concern about the Lashkar-e-Taiba founder's appearance at a public rally in the southern city of Karachi.

Saeed has been particularly high profile over the last few months as part of the leadership of the Difa-e-Pakistan Council, or Defence of Pakistan Council, which has held a series of large demonstrations demanding the government take an aggressive stance towards the US and India.

Lashkar-e-Taiba, which means Army of the Pure, belongs to the Salafi movement, an ultra-conservative branch of Islam similar to the Wahabi sect - the main Islamic branch in Saudi Arabia from which al-Qa'ida partly emerged. Lashkar-e-Taiba and al-Qa'ida operate separately but have been known to help each other when their paths intersect.

Analysts and terrorism experts agree that Pakistan's intelligence agency, known as the ISI, is still able to control Lashkar-e-Taiba, though the ISI denies it. Fears have grown that pressure has been building within the group to become even more ferocious and attack targets outside India - possibly in the United States.

After it was banned by the Pakistani government in 2002, Lashkar-e-Taiba began operating under the name of Jamaat-ud-Dawwa, its social welfare wing.

It carries out charitable works in scores of villages - partially funded by the Punjab provincial government. It has used national disasters, such as the devastating floods in 2010, as recruitment and fundraising opportunities.

The US declared Jamaat-ud-Dawwa a foreign terrorist organisation in 2008.

Pakistan's tolerance of Lashkar-e-Taiba is rooted in its fear of neighbouring India, with which it has fought three wars in 65 years. Analysts believe Pakistan still sees the group as useful in pressuring India, especially over Kashmir.

There are also fears about what would happen if Pakistan tried to crack down on the group, as it did with some other groups under US pressure in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks. It lost control of some who turned against their former patrons, and found itself also dealing with homegrown extremists. Lashkar-e-Taiba has so far refused to turn against the government and attack inside Pakistan.

AP

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