Suspected Kidnapper's Aunt Pleads for Pearl's Life

An aunt of the main suspect in Daniel Pearl's kidnapping spoke with her nephew by telephone and pleaded with him to free the Wall Street Journal reporter, Pakistan's interior minister said Sunday.

Ahmad Omar Saeed Sheikh and his aunt talked by cellphone last Tuesday, and she told him she was in police custody and urged him to turn himself in, Interior Minister Moinuddin Haider said. Police believe Saeed, a British-born Islamic militant, masterminded Pearl's Jan. 23 kidnapping.

"She said: 'We have been rounded up by the police and I think your game is out and we didn't know you were indulging in this. You better hand over yourself,' and after that his telephone went dead," Haider told reporters in Karachi, where Pearl disappeared more than two weeks ago.

He did not give the name of Saeed's aunt, who made the call from Karachi. She and one of her three sons have been released. The two others remain in custody.

Police believe Saeed has left Karachi but is still in Pakistan, said Haider. But Haider said he is certain that Pearl is still being held captive in this sprawling city of 14 million people on the Arabian Sea.

"We very strongly feel that he is in Karachi. He could not have moved out of Karachi by road or rail or air. He would have been detected," Haider said. "His abductors would not have taken this risk because there are many checkposts along the road."

Haider said Pearl took "unnecessary risks" by going alone to a Karachi restaurant on Jan. 23 to meet contacts he thought had arranged an interview with the leader of a small Islamic group. Pearl was apparently investigating links between Pakistani militants and Richard C. Reid, the so-called shoe bomber arrested on a Paris-to-Miami flight in December with explosives in his sneakers.

"To fall into the hands of these go-betweens, fixers and contacts who were of dubious character and meeting them at odd places I think he put himself at great risk," Haider said.

Saeed is believed to be tied to the Jaish-e-Mohammed group, which had close links to Afghanistan's ousted Taliban regime and Usama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network.

Saeed was arrested in India in 1994 for the kidnapping of Western backpackers, who were rescued unharmed. He was never charged.

He and two other militants were freed by India in December 1999 to end the hijacking of an Indian Airlines aircraft to Kandahar, Afghanistan.

The search for Pearl has been complicated by hoax e-mails and phone calls that contained threats and demands for money. Only two e-mails are known to have come from Pearl's captors.

Three men arrested for helping to send the genuine e-mails are to appear in court Monday charged with kidnapping.

"There were calls, and some of these calls were fake, and many of the e-mails were fake," said Haider. "When we picked up some people we came to know that these persons were just indulging in mischievous activities instead of being involved in this case."

He said police had hoped for an earlier breakthrough.

"We can only hope. We are hopeful we will reach Sheikh Omar soon," Haider said. "We were hoping for a breakthrough in the last few days. We are trying very hard."