-- Pakistan said Monday that it handed over a senior al Qaeda suspect to the United States even though he had been the country's most wanted man for allegedly masterminding two bloody attempts to blow up President Pervez Musharraf.
Some Pakistani officials have described Abu Faraj Libbi as al Qaeda's latest number three leader, after Osama bin Laden and Egyptian surgeon Ayman Zawahri. But he did not appear on the FBI list of the world's most wanted terrorists, and his exact role in al Qaeda remains murky.
The Libyan terrorism suspect was reportedly taken out of Pakistan aboard a plane by U.S. officials to an undisclosed destination a few days ago. U.S. officials here and in Washington declined to comment.
Libbi was captured during a shootout with Pakistani agents May 2. He had long been sought for two bombings that narrowly missed Musharraf in December 2003 and a suicide attack aimed at Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz in July 2004. Neither leader was hurt but 26 people died.
Because of the grave nature of the attacks, Libbi had been widely expected to stand trial in Pakistan. But last week Musharraf told CNN his government would turn the Libyan over to the United States. In a newspaper interview published Monday, he confirmed the handover had taken place.
"Yes, we turned Abu Farraj al-Libbi over to the United States recently, and we don't want people like him in our country," Musharraf was quoted as saying by al-Ittihad, a newspaper in the United Arab Emirates.
Musharraf's spokesman, Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan, verified the comments, which were made during an official visit to the United Arab Emirates.
A Pakistani intelligence official said Libbi was whisked out of Pakistan with U.S. officials on a plane "a few days ago." The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the clandestine nature of his job, said he did not know where Libbi was taken.
The U.S. Embassy in Islamabad said it had no information on the case, and the U.S. military in neighboring Afghanistan -- a possible detention or transit point for suspects sent out of Pakistan -- said it could not "confirm or deny" whether Libbi passed through the country.
In Washington, the CIA, the Justice Department and the FBI declined to comment.
Pakistan says it has captured more than 700 al Qaeda suspects since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States and has handed most of them over to U.S. authorities.
They include al Qaeda's former number three, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, a key planner of the Sept. 11 attacks, who was arrested in March 2003. Two other alleged al Qaeda leaders, Ramzi Binalshibh and Abu Zubaydah, were also caught in Pakistan. Their place of detention remains a secret.
It is unclear what charges, if any, Libbi might face in the United States.
At the time of the arrest, a senior Pakistani intelligence officer told the Associated Press that Libbi had been in frequent contact with bin Laden in recent months and that Pakistani interrogators were grilling him on the terrorist chief's whereabouts.
Musharraf said last week that Libbi had not provided information on the whereabouts of bin Laden, who is assumed to still be hiding in the rugged mountains along the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan.