ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Pakistani intelligence officials helped British security agencies crack a terror plot to blow up U.S.-bound aircraft from Britain and arrested two or three suspects in recent days, authorities said Thursday.
"Pakistan played a very important role in uncovering and breaking this international terrorist network," said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam. "Cooperation in this particular case was spread over a period of time. There were some arrests in Pakistan which were coordinated with arrests in the UK," she said.
Aslam declined to give details about the arrests, including the number of suspects, their identities or when they were arrested.
But a senior government official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment on the matter, said "two or three local people" suspected in the plot were arrested a few days ago in Lahore and Karachi.
Early Thursday morning, British police and security services arrested 24 people in what they said was a plot to simultaneously blow up several aircraft bound for the United States by using explosives smuggled in hand luggage.
In Paris, French Interior Minister Nicholas Sarkozy said the group "appears to be of Pakistani origin." In Britain, a police official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the investigation, said the suspects were "homegrown," though it was not immediately clear if they were all British citizens. He said authorities were working with Britain's large South Asian community.
The U.S. government said the terror scheme was international in scope and "suggestive of an Al Qaeda plot."
Aslam said the arrests in Britain followed active intelligence cooperation between Britain, Pakistan and the United States.
A Pakistani intelligence official said an Islamic militant arrested near the Afghan-Pakistan border several weeks ago provided a lead that played a role in "unearthing the plot."
"The major work was done by the British agents, but they got a major clue from Pakistan," said the intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
He said that some suspects arrested in Britain were linked with Al Qaeda, but had no further information on their identities.
The intelligence official said the information Pakistan obtained was "quickly verified and shared" with Britain. He said that Pakistan had learned Al Qaeda people "while sitting somewhere in Afghanistan had discussed this plan."
Pakistan is a key ally of Britain and the U.S. in the war on terrorism, but is still troubled by Islamic militancy.
Three of the four suicide attackers involved in the July 7, 2005, bombings on the London transport system that killed 52 people were British Muslims of Pakistani origin and had visited Pakistan before the attacks.
One of the bombers visited a pro-Taliban seminary in the eastern city of Lahore before the blasts, but officials in Pakistan say none of the London bombers received militant training or support during their visits.
Also Thursday, Pakistan put Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, the leader of the group Jamaat al-Dawat, which the U.S. has labeled a terrorist organization, under house arrest for a month in Lahore.
There was no immediate indication Saeed's detention was linked to the aircraft plot. Lahore police chief Khawaja Khalid Farooq said that Saeed was detained early Thursday as local authorities feared his plans to address a public rally in the city on Saturday, Pakistan's independence day, could cause a "law and order situation."
Jamaat al-Dawat carries out many charitable works in Pakistan and its leaders deny any involvement in militancy.
Pakistan itself has suffered repeated terrorist attacks by Islamic militants, and has waged a major counterterrorism campaign since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S., after it ended its support for the Taliban regime that had hosted Usama bin Laden in Afghanistan. It has launched military operations against Islamic militants along the Afghan border and arrested key Al Qaeda leaders, including Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
Pakistani security services are on alert ahead of the nation's independence day on Aug. 14, viewed as a potential occasion for attacks.
A top airport security official said they had not taken any "extraordinary measures" after Britain announced the foiled plot Thursday.
"We are always alert and keep a strict vigil at all airports," said Col. Rauf Khan, deputy director general for the Airport Security Force.