Pakistan confirmed Saturday it was holding about a dozen foreigners arrested this week on suspicion they were al-Qaida members, including one who U.S. authorities say was a key planner of the September 11th attacks in the United States.
A government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there were "very, very strong suspicions" that the group included Ramzi Binalshibh, a roommate of hijack leader Mohamed Atta in Germany. The FBI believes Binalshibh was to have been the 20th hijacker but was denied entry into the United States.
In Washington, U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they were convinced the man was Binalshibh. The Pakistani official said the suspect kept insisting under interrogation that his name was Abdullah.
Pakistani authorities were awaiting details about the man's family origins before confirming his identity, the official said.
Speaking to reporters, Interior Minister Moinuddin Haider did not come out and say that Binalshibh was in custody. However, when told that media reports from the United States identified the man as Binalshibh, Haider said the reports "must be right."
The government statement said the foreigners were apprehended and two were killed during raids here Monday night and Wednesday morning. "Two out of those arrested are suspected to be high-level al-Qaida men and their identity is being confirmed," the statement added.
Interviewed at a conference in Denmark, German Interior Minister Otto Schily said Saturday he will ask for Binalshibh's extradition. Schily said he'd like to see him tried in Germany, where he was believed to be part of a Hamburg-based cell of hijackers that plotted the September 11th attacks.
German Justice Minister Herta Daebler-Gmelin said German authorities will cooperate with other countries who may want custody of Binalshibh.
Should the United States seek to gain custody of Binalshibh, which seems likely, an extradition to Germany beforehand could raise serious legal snarls. Germany, like other European Union partners, customarily has refused to send prisoners in its custody to countries where they could face the death penalty.
The man believed to be Binalshibh was apprehended during the raid Wednesday — the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — at an apartment house in an upscale neighborhood of this teeming city of more than 12 million.
Those in the apartment fired grenades and automatic weapons at police, triggering a four-hour gunbattle which left two of the Islamic militants dead and seven policemen wounded.
A senior army officer said he visited the interrogation center Saturday where the captives were being held. The officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said prisoners were strapped to chairs and blindfolded during interrogation.
The man believed to be Binalshibh was uncooperative and kept insisting "my name is Abdullah."
President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, before leaving the United States where he attended the U.N. General Assembly debate, told CNN on Friday that one Egyptian, one Saudi and eight Yemenis were arrested in connection with the raid.
Binalshibh, 30, was born in Yemen. A correspondent for the Gulf-based Al-Jazeera satellite station claimed to have interviewed him and another top suspect, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, in Karachi three months ago. The interview was broadcast this week.
On Saturday, an Arabic language Web site that focuses on developments in Pakistan and Afghanistan issued a statement on the apparent arrest of Binalshibh, implying that it may have been linked to the Al-Jazeera interview.
"The arrest of Binalshibh, who is also wanted by German intelligence, came a few days after an interview ... on Al-Jazeera was broadcast," the statement said. "We would like to indicate that if, God forbid, this news is correct, this means there was a kind of treason that caused brother Ramzi to fall into the hands of those infidels, which requires a warning to all brothers."
Ibrahim Helal, Al-Jazeera's editor-in-chief, denied any link between Binalshibh's apparent arrest and the station's June interview with him and Mohammed.
"Why would the Americans and the Pakistanis wait three months to arrest a man of Binalshibh's importance?" he asked.
Helal said U.S. authorities have not contacted the Qatar-based station about the interview, excerpts of which appeared this week in a two-part documentary on the investigative Top Secret program marking the first anniversary of the September 11th attacks.
Karachi has an active Islamic militant community, and it had long been assumed that many al-Qaida and Taliban extremists sought refuge there after the hardline Islamic regime collapsed last year.
The Interior Ministry said earlier this week more than 400 al-Qaida suspects had been captured on Pakistani territory. Most were turned over to U.S. authorities.