The key suspect in the disappearance here of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl may have fled to Pakistan's most populous province, police said Saturday, insisting they still hope to free Pearl soon.

Kamal Shah, chief of police in Sindh province, said Ahmad Omar Saeed Sheikh may have left Karachi and "was reported to be in the Punjab" — a sprawling province that runs along Pakistan's border with India. He said investigators were trying to track Saeed.

"We feel we are close," he said. "We can't give you a timeframe. But we don't think we are far off."

Pearl, the newspaper's 38-year-old South Asian bureau chief, was abducted Jan. 23 en route to a meeting with Muslim extremist contacts. Police believe Saeed, a British-born Islamic militant, masterminded the kidnapping.

Pearl was believed to be investigating links between Pakistani militants and Richard C. Reid, a Briton arrested on a Paris-to-Miami flight in December with explosives in his shoes.

Most of Saeed's family live in the Punjab. In an attempt to flush Saeed out, police have detained several of his family members, including his 90-year-old grandfather, Ismail. Some, including the grandfather, have since been released, although police are still holding two of Saeed's cousins.

Reached by telephone at his home in the Punjab city of Lahore, the grandfather said he has not seen Saeed "in weeks."

"I am an old man. Please don't drag me into this," he said. "The police freed me perhaps because I am an old man. They wanted to know about Omar."

Pakistan's interior minister, Moinuddin Haider, confirmed Saturday that Saeed is a prime suspect, the first time the government has publicly connected him to the case.

Saeed was arrested in India in 1994, although never charged, for the kidnapping of Western backpackers. He was freed five years later along with two other Islamic extremists in exchange for passengers on an Indian Airlines flight that was hijacked to Kandahar, Afghanistan.

Another of those freed, Masood Azhar, is the leader of Jaish-e-Mohammed, or Army of Mohammed, an Islamic extremist group with close ties Usama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terror network.

Pearl's kidnapping has been an embarrassment to the government of President Pervez Musharraf ahead of his visit to Washington next week. Police and government officials have said repeatedly over the past week that they are closing in on Pearl's captors.

On Saturday, Musharraf's chief spokesman, Maj. Gen. Rashid Quereshi, said police spoke too soon.

"We heard a couple of days back, you know, that we'll recover him in a day or two," Quereshi told The Associated Press. "These have been reported by various people, police people, which I think is an incorrect thing to do. One should not make statements like this until one is absolutely sure."

"People that I spoke to, they were hopeful. But they can't put a date to when they expect to recover him or catch the culprits," Quereshi said. "Commenting on his (Pearl's) status and things like that jeopardizes the whole investigation and maybe his own security."

In New Delhi, Indian authorities said Saeed was also linked to an alleged crime boss who was extradited Saturday from Dubai in connection with a deadly shooting attack on an American government cultural center in Calcutta on Jan. 22. India's Central Bureau of Investigation said Saeed had helped Aftab Ansari, also known as Farhan Malik, flee to Dubai after jumping bail in India.

Dow Jones, which publishes The Wall Street Journal, issued a statement Friday saying it had not heard from Pearl's kidnappers in over a week, but remained "very confident" that he is alive and would be released soon. Musharraf, speaking Friday before he left for the United States, also said he was hopeful.

The last known communication from Pearl's captors was a Jan. 30 e-mail that said he would be killed in 24 hours. The only other e-mail, sent four days after Pearl's abduction, demanded the repatriation of Pakistanis captured in Afghanistan and held at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Both e-mails included photos of Pearl in captivity, one with a pistol to his head.

Three men said by police to have sent the e-mails will appear in court Monday on kidnapping charges.

The three — Farhad Naseem, who owned the laptop on which police found the e-mails, Mohammed Adeel, a constable with the police department's special branch, and Salman Saqib — have admitted to knowing Saeed, police said. Adeel and Saqib said they met him in Afghanistan, while Naseem said he received the e-mails from Saeed, police investigators said.

One police source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Saeed visited his aunt's home in Karachi on Jan. 24 and Jan. 25. Saeed also is believed to have met Naseem, Adeel and Saqib on Jan. 24, the day after Pearl's disappearance, the source said.

Western intelligence sources believe Saeed sent $100,000 to Mohamed Atta, the suspected ringleader of the Sept. 11 terrorist hijackings, through a money transfer system known as hawala that bypasses banks and official financial institutions.