White House 'strongly condemns' Pakistan's release of suspected terrorist

The White House on Saturday condemned Pakistan for releasing designated terrorist Hafiz Saeed -- saying the move is a setback in recent diplomatic efforts and urging Pakistani officials to re-arrest him.

“The United States seeks a constructive relationship with Pakistan but expects decisive action against militant and terrorist groups on Pakistani soil that are a threat to the region,” said White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders. “The release of Saeed is a step in the wrong direction.”

Saeed is connected to Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, the terror group linked to the November 2008 Mumbai, India, attacks that killed at least 166 people, including six U.S. citizens.

The terror group -- known as LeT – is a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization. In addition, the Justice Department declared Saeed a “designated terrorist,” with a $10 million reward for information leading to his arrest and conviction.

The United States and its allies have long been critical of Pakistan's connection with terrorism, since the country in past times has supported the Taliban and Al Qaeda. U.S. Special Forces in 2011 killed 9/11 mastermind Usama bin Laden while he was hiding in Pakistan.

And Trump this summer, while discussing his strategy for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, said the South Asia country “harbors terrorists.”   

Saeed was released from house arrest Friday, after a three-judge panel ended his detention in the eastern city of Lahore.

In a statement Saturday, Sanders said the United States "strongly condemns" Saeed’s release and urged his "immediate re-arrest and prosecution."

"Saeed's release, after Pakistan's failure to prosecute or charge him, sends a deeply troubling message about Pakistan's commitment to combatting international terrorism and belies Pakistani claims that it will not provide sanctuary for terrorists on its soil," she said.

"If Pakistan does not take action to lawfully detain Saeed and charge him for his crimes, its inaction will have repercussions for bilateral relations and for Pakistan's global reputation. "

Saeed’s release also outraged Indian authorities, while Saeed spokesman Yahya Mujahid called it a "victory of truth."

"Hafiz Saeed was under house arrest on baseless allegations, and jail officials came to his home last night and told him that he is now free," he said.

Saeed ran the Jamaat-ud-Dawa organization, widely believed to be a front for the LeT.

Pakistan has been detaining and freeing Saeed off and on.

The Trump administration has been intensifying pressure on Pakistan to fight extremists and drive them from hideouts in Pakistani territory.

The campaign appeared to produce some success this year when Pakistani security forces assisted with the release of a Taliban-held U.S.-Canadian family after five years in captivity. However, U.S. officials cautioned that move needed to be followed by additional measures to prove the country's commitment.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif said during a visit to Washington in October that Pakistan was willing to cooperate fully with the administration. He said Pakistan had wiped out militant hideouts with little help from the U.S., which has restricted hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance to Pakistan in recent years.

The U.S. in August said it would hold up $255 million in military assistance for Pakistan until it cracks down on extremist groups that threaten neighboring Afghanistan.

President Trump's tough words about Pakistan, a troubled U.S. security partner, infuriated Islamabad and triggered anti-U.S. protests that Pakistani police have had to use tear gas to disperse.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.