WASHINGTON, March 2: President Bush celebrated the arrest of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept 11 terrorist attacks, with his colleagues on Saturday, while the White House issued an official statement praising Pakistan.

The US media even praised ISI, otherwise a favourite media target often accused of secretly encouraging the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

“That’s fantastic” the president said early Saturday when his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, delivered the news of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed’s capture in Pakistan along with two other suspects.

“The United States commends Pakistani and US authorities on the completion of a successful joint operation which resulted in the detention of several Al Qaeda operatives, including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed,” the White House said.

Although Pakistan denies American involvement in the raid, officials in Washington said CIA and Pakistani officers jointly carried out the operation that led to their capture.

It was midnight Friday when CIA Director George Tenet first called Ms Rice, who was staying at Camp David with the president and the first lady, to say that authorities were “pretty certain” they had Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and two others, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said.

The confirmation came first thing on Saturday and Ms Rice called from her cabin to Mr Bush’s at the Maryland mountain retreat.

“It’s hard to overstate how significant this is,” Mr Fleischer said. “It’s a wonderful blow to inflict on Al Qaeda.”

Mr Fleischer described Khalid Shaikh as a “savvy operational planner” of the terrorist network and a nuts-and-bolts leader. A White House statement accused Khalid Shaikh Mohammed of masterminding the attacks in Washington and New York and of being “centrally involved” in Al Qaeda plotting since then for attacks inside the US.

It is too soon for decisions about whether Khalid Shaikh Mohammed might be the first defendant President Bush designates for trial before a military tribunal or dealt with some other way, Mr Fleischer said. Officials would not comment on whether Khalid Shaikh was to be brought to the United States.

On Fox News, former secretary of state Lawrence Eagleberger urged those in the US media who criticized Pakistan to “shut up”. President Pervez Musharraf and other Pakistani leaders, he said, were helping the United States catch Al Qaeda operatives “at great personal risks.”

Appearing in the same show, Pakistani Ambassador Ashraf Jehangir Qazi pointed out that the ISI was actively participating in the raids to catch Al Qaeda, belying those in the US media who accused the agency of not cooperating in the war against terrorism.

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