ISLAMABAD, April 6: A religious leader who had a $10 million American bounty placed on his head this week has been helping de-radicalise militants under efforts to stabilise the country, a top counter-terrorism official said on Friday.

Hafiz Saeed, accused of masterminding the Mumbai attacks of 2008, met government officials from the Punjab province and pledged his support for the drive, the official said.

“Hafiz Saeed has agreed with the Punjab government programme of de-radicalisation and rehabilitation of former jihadis and extended full cooperation,” the counter-terrorism official said.

The counter-terrorism official said that Saeed had not been paid for his de-radicalisation activities.

The $10 million figure signifies major US interest in Hafiz Saeed. Only three other militants, including Taliban leader Mullah Omar, fetch that high a bounty. There is a $25 million bounty on the head of Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The announcement of a reward for Hafiz Saeed comes at a time of strained ties between the United States and Pakistan and is likely to increase pressure on Islamabad to take action against him.

A senior police official in Punjab province, who is closely involved with investigations into militant activity, confirmed that Hafiz Saeed and his supporters were helping efforts to transform militants into law-abiding citizens.

“Jamaatud Dawa (JuD) was consulted, and they approved the de-radicalisation plan. They assured us of their intellectual input and resource materials. They also offered teachers,” he said, referring to the charity Hafiz Saeed heads.

The bounty highlighted the divide between the United States’ direct approach to tackling militancy, and strategies employed by Pakistan.

While Pakistan has mounted offensives against militant groups like the Pakistani Taliban, it also contends other tactics such as de-radicalisation are vital to sustaining battlefield gains.

Yahya Mujahid, the JuD spokesman, said the group had not participated in the de-radicalisaton programme.

Hafiz Khalid Waleed, another senior JuD member, declined to comment on whether the Islamist leader had been directly assisting the government in de-radicalisation. But he said Saeed and his followers were promoting non-violence.

“Hafiz Saeed was one of the first religious leaders to denounce militancy and suicide bombings,” said Waleed. “Our schools and madressahs are urging peace.”

Under the programme, former militants are urged to develop technical skills that could give them long-lasting employment to keep them from taking up arms against the state again. Experts also try to reverse what Pakistani officials call brainwashing by militants.

To help the de-radicalisation programme, Hafiz Saeed identifies former militants who may still be recruited for jihad because they are jobless and idle and he steers them towards the programme, according to the counter-terrorism official.

Many Pakistanis privately support Hafiz Saeed, particularly his animosity towards India. The US bounty, which would be paid for information leading to Saeed’s arrest and conviction, however puzzled Pakistanis.

His whereabouts are usually not a mystery. He wanders the country freely, fires up supporters at rallies and runs a huge charity.

Waleed mocked the decision to place a bounty on Hafiz Saeed. “President Barack Obama’s election symbol was a donkey and his government is acting like one. They have no evidence against Hafiz Saeed and are scrambling to make up stories,” he said.

Pakistani officials say Saeed, who western officials suspect of links to Al Qaeda, has the right to move freely because he has been cleared by Pakistani courts of a range of accusations.

Saeed abandoned the leadership of Lashkar-e-Taiba after India accused it of being behind an attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001. But his charity is suspected of being a front for the LeT.

He denies any wrongdoing and links to militants.—Reuters

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