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Pakistan seizes 'al Qaeda No. 3'

10 other suspected al Qaeda operatives arrested


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Pakistan seize a man officials say was the No. 3 al Qaeda leader.
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LAHORE, Pakistan (CNN) -- The alleged No. 3 man in al Qaeda -- believed responsible for the terror group's global operations -- has been captured in northwest Pakistan near the border with Afghanistan, Pakistani and U.S. officials said Wednesday.

In Washington, President Bush hailed the arrest of Abu Faraj al-Libbi and that of 10 other suspected al Qaeda members as a "critical victory in the war on terror."

U.S. and Pakistani officials said al-Libbi and three other al Qaeda suspects were arrested Monday after a gunbattle in Mardan, a city in the country's northwest province.

U.S. intelligence reports have said the same province is where al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are believed to be hiding.

Intelligence officials and local police said seven al Qaeda members were arrested in another raid early Wednesday in Bajore, also on the northwestern frontier near the Afghanistan border.

The operation began with a raid on a house by Pakistani army commandos, security agency officers and helicopters, officials said.

Three of the men arrested are Afghan, three are Pakistani, and one's nationality was not yet known, the officials said.

Al-Libbi -- blamed for masterminding two assassination attempts against Pakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf -- is a Libyan and has a $10 million bounty on his head.

"He was the most wanted man in Pakistan, and he's a big catch," said Pakistani Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmad said. "It's a good sign and we are going in the right direction."

Bush said "al-Libbi was a top general for bin Laden. He was a major facilitator and a chief planner for the al Qaeda network. His arrest removes a dangerous enemy who was a direct threat for America."

Bush praised the Pakistan government for its "strong cooperation in the war on terror."

"We'll stay on the offensive until al Qaeda is defeated," Bush said.

Human intelligence cited

In Washington, U.S. counterterrorism officials said al-Libbi's capture was due in part to U.S. intelligence.

One official called al-Libbi's capture "great news" and said human intelligence "played a critical role."

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters that al-Libbi -- whom she called a "field general" -- was a very important figure for al Qaeda.

She he was someone "we've watched a lot every single day," even though he didn't appear on the U.S. list of the 22 most-wanted terrorists.

"This is a truly significant arrest," she said, praising Pakistani officials for their work.

Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, said the arrest was a "big deal" and a "testament to the good cooperation we are getting from Pakistan."

"This in many ways is their accomplishment," Hadley said.

Sources told CNN that al-Libbi will likely undergo a joint interrogation by U.S. and Pakistani officials.

A source who has witnessed Pakistani interrogation methods said extreme psychological pressure was a hallmark of the intense sessions.

Another source who has close links to al Qaeda told CNN the arrest would slow down the group's operation.

Intelligence officials said al-Libbi was engaged last year in coded communication with al Qaeda operatives in both the United States and Britain.

"This guy was my No. 1 target," said former Deputy CIA Director John McLaughlin. "Bin Laden is, of course, more important symbolically, but in terms of practical day-to-day operations ... this is the guy you want."

McLaughlin, a CNN contributor, said that even if al-Libbi knew Monday where bin Laden was, "by now bin Laden will have moved."

In a phone interview with the Arabic-language television network Al-Jazeera, Ahmad denied media reports that the raid that captured al-Libbi also netted documents that put authorities closer to capturing bin Laden.

U.S. counterterrorism officials believe al-Libbi took on the role of No. 3 in al Qaeda following the March 2003 capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in Pakistan. They said al-Libbi was responsible for plotting attacks against the U.S. homeland.

Intelligence officials have said, however, that al-Libbi has not had effective control over the Uzbek and Chechen factions of al Qaeda in Pakistan, as Sheikh Mohammed did, and that the Arab contingent of al Qaeda was not getting along with the other two groups.

U.S. and Pakistani officials said it was too early to say whether al-Libbi will be turned over to the CIA as Sheikh Mohammed was, or if he will be kept in Pakistan to be tried for the assassination attempts, one of which left 17 people dead.

Al-Libbi's arrest was kept quiet for days because of "useful information obtained from him" in an ongoing counterterrorist operation, said Mohammad Sadiq, deputy chief of mission at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington.

A close lieutenant of al-Libbi -- who was among six suspects identified as Pakistan's most wanted terrorists in a poster campaign last year -- was picked up in December, officials said.

CNN's Syed Mohsin Naqvi, David Ensor and Nic Robertson contributed to this report.


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