ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan braced for reprisals on Saturday, with police on alert for suicide attacks in the city where a senior Taliban leader was captured this week.
The arrest of Mullah Obaidullah Akhund, a member of Taliban supremo Mullah Mohammad Omar’s inner circle, was disclosed to Reuters by several security officials, though it has not been confirmed by Pakistani authorities.
Extra security forces were deployed at government buildings and public places in Quetta, the southwest city where Akhund was caught on Monday.
Police there announced on Saturday the arrest of an Afghan involved in a suicide attack on a courtroom that killed 16 people, including a judge, on February 17.
“He told us that there are more suicide bombers in the city who can carry out attacks,” Senior Superintendent Police Qazi Abdul Wahid told a news conference in the provincial capital of Baluchistan, where some 600,000 Afghans are living.
Pakistan has been in the grip of a security scare, as jihadi groups sympathetic to al Qaeda and the Taliban have carried out a series of suicide and bomb attacks in cities around the country following an air strike against compounds used by militants in the Waziristan tribal area on the Afghan border.
Akhund’s capture was the first arrest of a high-ranking Taliban officer since the Islamist militia were driven out of Afghanistan in late 2001 by U.S.-backed forces.
The timing of the arrest, just hours after an unannounced visit by Vice President Dick Cheney and a senior CIA officer, is awkward for President Pervez Musharraf, as he does not want to be seen to be acting under pressure given the extent of anti-American sentiment in the country.
The Bush administration faces a wave of skepticism over Pakistan’s role as an ally in the war on terrorism, and there are moves in Congress to cut aid to Islamabad.
During his visit, Cheney asked Musharraf to do more to stop al Qaeda from rebuilding its infrastructure in safe havens in Pakistani tribal lands and step up efforts to thwart a spring offensive by the Taliban against Afghan and NATO troops.
One of the reasons why authorities are staying quiet about Akhund’s arrest is fear that a backlash from militants and Islamist political parties opposed to Musharraf could become more acute, according to officials.
“It could lead to security problems, as Taliban present in the country could react,” a security officer in Baluchistan said.
On Friday, an anti-terrorism court judge was wounded when a bomb detonated by remote control exploded as his car passed over a flyover in the central city of Punjab, but three policemen in his escort were killed.
Reports of Akhund’s arrest in the Pakistani media have been scanty. Another reason for withholding the news was to buy time for interrogators to extract information, officials said.
At least five more suspected Taliban were arrested in Quetta mid-week, security sources said.
Raids on small hotels in the city netted another 22 Afghan nationals, but it was not known if they were Taliban suspects, or merely Afghans without proper identity documents.
After Akhund’s arrest, one senior Taliban leader in southern Afghanistan voiced disgust at what he saw as Pakistani duplicity.
“The Pakistanis are worse than the Americans,” he told Reuters by satellite telephone from an undisclosed location.