ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Five people, including two police officers, have been arrested on suspicion they helped a British suspect in an alleged plot to blow up trans-Atlantic jetliners escape from police custody, the Pakistani interior minister said Tuesday.
Britain has been seeking Rashid Rauf's extradition, both to question him as a "key person" in the airplane plot and as a suspect in the 2002 killing of his uncle. He has denied involvement in both cases.
Rauf slipped out the back door of a mosque after tricking police into stopping to let him pray on the way back to jail following a court appearance in Islamabad Saturday on Britain's extradition request, police said.
Interior Minister Hamid Nawaz called Rauf's escape "unfortunate" and a serious security lapse.
"We have one or two very good leads, which we are working on, and the people who were closely involved in his escape have also been apprehended," he told The Associated Press.
He said Rauf's possible escape routes have been blocked but he had a "good eight-, nine-hour start that has given him some advantage." Nawaz said the five people who were arrested include two police officers and one of Rauf's uncles.
He said he did not know if Al Qaeda was behind the escape.
A police official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to media, earlier said the two police officers were being investigated for negligence and possible links with Rauf's two uncles.
The escape is an embarrassment for President Pervez Musharraf, who made Pakistan a key ally of the United States in its war on terror following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Rauf's lawyer, Hashmat Habib, has called the escape a "mysterious disappearance," saying he never opposed deportation. Habib said police commandos had escorted Rauf on earlier trips to court.
"How can it happen that only two policemen were traveling with him on Saturday?" Habib asked.
One of Pakistan's leading newspapers, The News, reported Tuesday that Rauf's uncle Mohammed Rafique had been in touch with one of the arrested policemen. Rafique was arrested in Kashmir this week.
It also said the officers let another of Rauf's uncles, Zahoor, talk them into letting him drive Rauf back to the jail in his own car. The officers had lunch with Rauf at a McDonald's restaurant in Rawalpindi, then unlocked his handcuffs when he went inside the mosque, the report said.
The newspaper also reported that the guards didn't immediately inform their bosses about the incident, and that they searched for Rauf for hours before reporting the matter.
Rauf, who is of Pakistani origin, was arrested here in August 2006 on a tip from British investigators. Pakistan described him as a key suspect in a purported plot to blow up airplanes flying from Britain to the United States, prompting a major security alert at airports worldwide and increased restrictions on carry-on items.
He was charged with possessing chemicals that could be used in making explosives and with carrying forged travel documents.
Rauf denied involvement in the plot and prosecutors later withdrew the case against him, though he remained in jail awaiting a decision on a British extradition request.
Britain asked Pakistan to hand him over in connection with a separate 2002 murder inquiry. The two countries do not have an extradition treaty.