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Suicide bomb swoop bags Musharraf's merry men

Entirely innocent supporters deported anyway

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Eight days ago the Sunday Times revealed the thwarting of yet another terror plot. In late January "a group of suspected Islamist suicide bombers were arrested in a secret security operation at Gatwick airport," the paper told us, going on to describe plans for "pairs of suicide bombers... to strap explosives to their bodies and blow themselves up on the rail and bus networks in Britain, France, Germany and Portugal."

But, after questioning by counter-terrorism police at Paddington Green "they were driven under police escort back to the airport and escorted onto a flight back to Pakistan." Bafflingly, the Times failed to explain this part of the story, which certainly perplexed the first commenter, a C W of Milwaukee.

A week later the Guardian had some of the answer. Writing from Lahore Declan Walsh explained how UK diplomats had been making grovelling apologies after arresting "six Pakistani men close to President Pervez Musharraf's ruling elite" on suspicion of terrorist activity. The six had arrived on a flight from Barcelona, and had been met by "about 20 armed police and Scotland Yard detectives", then held for 21 hours.

After their lawyer arrived, police seemed to have realised their mistake. "The group were escorted to Heathrow and put on a flight to Pakistan with an apology." As the Sunday Times notes, the group were arrested ten days before its piece, headlined "Suicide bomb suspects held at Gatwick after tip-off", ran, and they were released with apologies (as the paper doesn't note) nine days before the piece ran. 'Musharraf's men busted after Yard terror blunder' is actually a much better story than yet another suicide suspect arrest at airport, so the Times' apparent failure to enquire is even more mystifying.

Any reluctance on the part of the Yard to boast about it would on the other hand be entirely understandable, and the Lahore byline on the Guardian piece is therefore significant.

But we said the Guardian had some of the answer - what about the rest? Who were these men close to "Musharraf's ruling elite"? And why were they flying to London? The group was led by Chaudhry Wajahat Hussain, brother of former Prime Minister of Pakistan and Musharraf supporter Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain. According to the local press, Wajahat "had left Pakistan on January 18 for the Netherlands to become a ‘helping hand’ for Musharraf during his nine-day visit of Europe, by arranging receptions to give an impression that the president was very popular among the overseas Pakistanis. He first held a rally in Brussels, where Musharraf went on the first leg of his unofficial tour, and then in Paris. He was returning as per schedule."

The ill-fated Barcelona leg of the journey had been intended as a shopping side-trip, with Wajahat and friends arriving in London prior to Musharraf's visit later that week. Wajahat is said to run the Wajahat force, which has been accused of intimidation in the run-up to Pakistan's elections.

Originally, a tip-off from Spanish intelligence was said to be responsible for the group's detention, but subsequently French intelligence has been blamed. Some days beforehand Spain had arrested 14 terror suspects in Barcelona on a tip-off from a French intelligence informant in Pakistan. Wajahat's group had arrived in Barcelona from Paris, an earlier stop on Musharraf's tour. So did the French - if it was the the French - wrongly think the group were terrorists, or rightly think they were something else? And if the Brits were finally convinced the group were innocent tourists or Musharraf aides, why did they deport them anyway? ®

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