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Former Taliban defense minister arrested

The suspect is considered a key person in the insurgency in neighboring Afghanistan.

Published March 2, 2007


ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Pakistan arrested a former Taliban defense minister regarded as a top figure in the Afghan insurgency, a Pakistani intelligence official said Thursday.

Mullah Obaidullah Akhund, considered a key associate of fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Omar, is the most senior leader from the hard-line militia to be arrested since U.S.-led troops ousted it from power in 2001.

Akhund was among five Taliban suspects arrested in a raid on a home in the southwestern city of Quetta earlier this week, said the official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to comment to journalists.

There was no immediate official confirmation from the Pakistani government. Brig. Javed Iqbal Cheema, a senior Interior Ministry official handling counterterrorism issues, denied late Thursday that a top Taliban figure had been arrested. Tariq Khosa, police chief of Baluchistan province where Quetta is located, said he was not aware of Akhund's arrest.

The New York Times, citing two unnamed Pakistani officials, said Akhund was arrested Monday, the day Vice President Dick Cheney visited Pakistan.

During his visit, Cheney had expressed concern to President Gen. Pervez Musharraf over al-Qaida regrouping inside Pakistan's tribal regions and an expected Taliban spring offensive in neighboring Afghanistan.

Taliban sources could not be reached for comment on the reports of Akhund's arrest.

Taliban-led militants have staged a resurgence over the past year, threatening the elected Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai. Bitter fighting with Afghan, NATO and U.S. forces during 2006 left thousands dead, and militant leaders are threatening a new wave of attacks as winter subsides in the coming weeks.

The surge in violence has badly strained Pakistan's relations with Afghanistan.

Also Thursday, a roadside bomb in western Afghanistan left three civilians dead and 48 wounded, including 10 children, officials said.

The blast targeted a passing police vehicle in the city of Farah, said Mohammad Qasem Bayan, the chief of public health department for Farah province.

The attack happened in the city center near a school, Bayan said.

The police vehicle was slightly damaged and two officers also were wounded, said Zemeri Bashary, a spokesman for the ministry of interior.

"It is the work of enemies of Afghanistan," Bashary said, suggesting the resurgent Taliban militants were behind the attack.

In southern Helmand province Wednesday, residents discovered the body of a doctor who was kidnapped and killed by suspected Taliban militants earlier in the week, said Gen. Mohammad Eisah, the province's deputy police chief.

[Last modified March 2, 2007, 01:28:16]

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