Pakistan has arrested a French man reportedly linked to one of the masterminds of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, officials said Wednesday, a reminder of the country's vital role in the war on international jihadist groups at a time of deteriorating relations with the US.
The arrest shows the additional challenges facing a country already trying to salvage its stumbling economy and pull itself out of a deepening political crisis. Following a Supreme Court decision Tuesday disqualifying the prime minister over a corruption probe, the president has called for parliament to elect a new premier on Friday.
Western media reports have described Meziche as an Al Qaeda operative with links to European jihadist groups. He was believed to have been living in either Pakistan or Iran. CNN and the Wall Street Journal have reported Meziche was a friend of Mohammed Atta, who piloted American Airlines Flight 11 into the World Trade Center. Meziche does not appear to have had any operational role in the attacks.
The officials did not give their names in keeping with the policy of the Pakistani security forces.
The officials said Meziche was a close associate of Younis al-Mauritani, whom Pakistani security forces arrested last year in a joint operation with the CIA. That arrest also took place in Baluchistan. US officials said al-Mauritani was believed to have been plotting attacks in Europe.
A senior Pakistan security official said al-Mauritani's interrogation led officials to Meziche. He was arrested while trying to flee the country, likely on his way to Somalia, said the official. If Meziche is found to have broken the law in Pakistan, he would be charged and tried inside the country, the official said. Otherwise, he would be deported to France.
Baluchistan also borders Afghanistan to the northeast and has been a hotbed of militant activity.
Al Qaeda in Pakistan
The arrest highlights the Pakistani security forces' key role in the campaign against Al Qaeda, even as the US and Pakistan are going through a rocky period. The US raid on the Pakistan city of Abbottabad that killed Osama bin Laden last year raised questions about whether Pakistani security officials at some level knew of the Al Qaeda leader's presence. The raid infuriated the Pakistani military because it was not told about it ahead of time and were powerless to stop it.
Then in November, US forces accidentally killed 24 Pakistani border troops. Pakistan closed supply lines to American and NATO forces in Afghanistan and is demanding an apology from the US.
The US has accused Pakistan of not doing enough to go after militant groups. During a June 7 visit to Kabul, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the US was losing patience with Pakistan over its failure to go after the Haqqani network, considered one of the most dangerous groups in Afghanistan.
Pakistan says the US does not recognize the price it's paid for taking on militant groups, a battle that has killed tens of thousands of Pakistani civilians and security forces. Many analysts believe Pakistan is reluctant to target militants who could be useful allies in Afghanistan after foreign forces withdraw.
On Wednesday, Pakistan's president summoned parliament to meet Friday to elect a new prime minister.
The Supreme Court dismissed Yousuf Raza Gilani along with his Cabinet on Tuesday for his failure to investigate his ally President Asif Ali Zardari for corruption, adding more political instability in a country already saddled with serious economic and security problems. In moving quickly to install a new premier — and not defying the court order as some had predicted — the government may reduce fears of major upheaval.
Zardari's Pakistan People's Party has the largest number of seats in parliament and heads a coalition government.
A government official said that Makhdoom Shahabuddin, the outgoing textile minister, was the likely candidate, as did another member of the ruling PPP. They did not give their names because they were not authorized to speak on the record.
Mr. Shahabuddin is from Rahim Yar Khan, a conservative Islamic city in southern Punjab province. He is considered a party loyalist and was known to be close to Zardari's late wife, Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in 2007.
Whoever takes over is likely to face a rocky and short ride.
The government must call elections before March next year. Under the constitution, polls can be held only under a neutral caretaker government which must be in place three months before election day. Many analysts have speculated that the current political upheaval may bring the election forward, possibly to November. Elections before that date are considered unlikely because of the fierce summer heat, which makes it difficult to organize and get large numbers of people to the polls.
The new prime minister will also likely run into trouble with the Supreme Court, which is expected to renew its demand for a corruption probe against Zardari. The court has been criticized by some for making political decisions and jeopardizing the democratic setup in Pakistan.