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February 15, 2002
1655 IST

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IA hijacker is suspect in Daniel Pearl case

K J M Varma in Islamabad

The mystery behind the abduction of American journalist Daniel Pearl deepened on Friday with Pakistan authorities saying that they had identified Mansoor Hasnain, the main architect of the December 1999 hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane, as the main suspect in the case.

Meanwhile, the presiding judge of the anti-terrorism court in Karachi denied reports that Sheikh Omar Saeed, a suspect arrested by the police, had said that the Wall Street Journal reporter was dead.

Judge Arshad Noor Khan, who remanded Sheikh to 13 days' custody, told reporters that he did not hear Sheikh say anything about Pearl's death in his court.

"You may, however, write anything you have heard him saying," Pakistan daily The News quoted him as saying.

Sheikh confessed to the authorities that his role ended with luring and abducting Pearl, but that the entire plot was hatched by Hasnain, who currently holds Pearl, the daily reported.

The police are now focussing on Hasnain, a senior member of the Jaish-e-Mohammed.

Quoting investigators, the daily said though Sheikh referred to Hasnain as Hyder or Mansoor Siddiqi, the police have 'discovered' his real identity.

Sheikh had been released along with Maulana Masood Azhar and Mushtaq Zargar in December 1999 by the Indian government in exchange for the passengers of the plane.

"Sheikh Omar owes his life to Mansoor Hasnain," the police investigator said.

After zeroing on Hasnain, police raided his residence in Toba Tek Singh district and detained some of his relatives.

Sheikh has provided the police with a graphic account of his role in the abduction of Pearl, who was introduced to him by Hashim Qadir alias Arif, a militant activist wanted by the police.

Hashim, first considered as the main suspect in the case, was presumed dead after his family told the police two weeks ago that he was killed while fighting against US troops in Afghanistan.

Sheikh told interrogators that Hashim was alive and had spoken to him over phone on January 31.

He said Hashim had arranged a meeting with Pearl at the Akbar International Hotel in Rawalpindi. "It was a great meeting. We ordered cold coffee and club sandwiches and had a great chit-chat," Omar reportedly confessed.

"We had nothing personal against Pearl," he said.

Elaborating on the reasons for Pearl's abduction, Sheikh said he was angered by the news that the Muslim prisoners of the war in Afghanistan were being forced to shave their beards and were being treated inhumanly by American forces.

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