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‘Rashid Rauf escaped with his uncle’

December 18, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Dec 17: Rashid Rauf, the Briton suspected of a plane bombing plot who escaped from custody in Islamabad, got away after police let his uncle drive him back to jail following a court appearance, a security official said on Monday.

Rauf, a British national of Pakistan origin wanted for an alleged plan to blow up trans-Atlantic jetliners, slipped away in unclear circumstances on Saturday after appearing in a court.

The latest details of his escape will likely come as further embarrassment for the government, which was considering a British request for Rauf’s extradition in an unrelated 2002 murder case.

The senior security official said Rauf’s uncle, Mohammad Rafiq, had convinced the two police escorts to make the drive back to jail in Rafiq’s more comfortable van -- instead of in a police vehicle.

The official said that on the way to jail in Rawalpindi, Rauf asked for permission to stop at a fast-food restaurant -- where the uncle bought a meal for all of them.

Then Rauf asked to visit a mosque for prayers, which was also allowed.

While the prayer service was going on Rauf and his uncle disappeared.

“Rauf’s uncle, who helped him escape from custody, has been arrested and is under interrogation,” the official said.

Rauf’s lawyer said on Monday another of his uncles had been arrested.

“I spoke to his family and they said two of his uncles have been arrested and his house in Bahawalpur was raided,” Hashmat Habib said.

The superintendent of the jail where Rauf was being held said the police escorts may have even unlocked his handcuffs when he went to pray.

“It is said that he asked permission to offer prayers and the two police officials who were escorting him allowed this,” said Mohsin Rafiq, superintendent of Adiala Jail, Rawalpindi.

“It seems his handcuffs would have been removed to let him say his prayers,” Rafiq said. “It is sheer police negligence.” The two police escorts have also been detained for questioning.

The government has launched a nationwide manhunt for Rauf, and has established a committee to probe the escape -- with an initial report requested by Tuesday.The British High Commission in Islamabad said it was in close touch with the Pakistani authorities about the escape.

“The High Commissioner spoke yesterday (Sunday) to the interim interior minister of Pakistan and was assured Rauf’s recapture was a priority for them and that they had set up an inquiry into how the escape had happened,” the spokesman said.

Arrested in Pakistan in August last year, Rauf was identified by Pakistani officials as a key figure in a plot to carry out suicide bombings on airliners travelling from London to the United States.

But his case has run into a legal quagmire and is being dealt with by higher and lower courts simultaneously.

Rauf had left Britain and travelled to Pakistan in 2002 after the murder in Britain of an uncle.

Britain had sought his extradition in connection with an investigation into the murder. Pakistan had said it was considering the request.

An anti-terrorism court dropped terrorism charges against Rauf in December last year, citing a lack of evidence, and referred lesser charges, including the possession of explosives, to the civil court.

But the Lahore High Court, acting on a plea from the government, later suspended the trail in a move aimed at getting the case referred back to the anti-terrorism court.

Our Correspondent in Bahawalpur adds: A heavy police contingent raided the house of Rashid Rauf on Sunday night, carrying out a thorough search.

Police grilled Rashid’s brother, Umair, and his sister for about an hour. According to Umair, the police officials asked questions about the whereabouts of Rashid Rauf.

Police went on high alert after Rashid’s escape from police custody, setting set up an improvised camp near his house and questioning all visitors.