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Pakistan arrests al-Qaida official

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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan claimed successes Monday on two fronts in its war on terrorism, ending an assault against al-Qaida hideouts near the Afghan border and announcing the arrest of the alleged mastermind of attacks on Shiites.

The arrested man, Daud Badini, leads an al-Qaida-linked militant group, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, and police say he is a brother-in-law of Ramzi Yousef, who is serving a life term in the United States for the 1993 World Trade Center bombings.

Badini was among 11 terrorist suspects — also including a nephew of former al-Qaida No. 3 official, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed — captured over the weekend in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city.

The U.S. military, which is counting on Pakistan to hunt down al-Qaida and Taliban fugitives along the Afghan border, hailed the Karachi arrests and the offensive in South Waziristan, in which officials said at least 72 people were killed, including 55 militants.

The five-day assault on al-Qaida hideouts was the second major counterterrorism offensive in South Waziristan in three months. Another operation in March left at least 120 people dead.

"It is a large blow against terrorism in Pakistan," Lt. Col. Tucker Mansager told reporters in the Afghan capital, Kabul.

However, he said the U.S. military was not aware that any al-Qaida leaders had been captured in South Waziristan, a possible hiding place of Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaida No. 2 official, Ayman al-Zawahri.

The operation began Wednesday when foreign militants attacked Pakistani soldiers, triggering a barrage by artillery, helicopter gunships and jet fighters against rebel mountain hideouts.

Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan said that when the operation ended late Sunday, 72 people had been killed, including 55 militants and 17 security forces. Some of the militants were foreigners, although he declined to reveal their nationalities.

He told state-run television that security forces now have complete control of the area, with militants either dead or dispersed.

An Associated Press reporter in South Waziristan saw a convoy of about 60 military vehicles, including trucks, jeeps and ambulances, heading toward the area of the conflict on Monday, but no fighting was reported.

However, hostilities continued elsewhere.

A bomb hit a vehicle carrying paramilitary soldiers in North Waziristan, killing two soldiers and a driver. Also Monday, Pakistani intelligence agents killed an al-Qaida suspect in a gunbattle near the northern city of Abbottabad.

Officials suspect the lawless border region has not only been a sanctuary for rebels fighting the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan, but also a training area for militants who have launched attacks inside Pakistan, including some of the 11 terrorist suspects arrested in Karachi over the weekend.

Eight of the suspects, all Pakistanis, appeared in a Karachi court Monday. They were ordered held for questioning for 14 days over a failed assassination attempt on a top general last week — that left 10 other people dead — and other acts of terrorism in the city, including a foiled effort to bomb the U.S. Consulate in March.

Meanwhile, a CIA official speaking on condition of anonymity, said the authenticity of an audiotape thought to be from al-Zawahri could not be verified. The tape, which aired Friday on Arab television, alleged that the U.S. plan for democratic reform in the Middle East is really a scheme to replace Arab leaders.

On Monday, authorities announced the capture of Badini, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi militant who is accused of orchestrating three attacks in the past year against Shiites in southwestern city of Quetta that killed 99 people — including devastating suicide raids on a mosque and a religious procession.

Badini's family denied he is Ramzi Yousef's brother-in-law, saying his sisters were either single or married to cousins.

Badini's brother said the family would get lawyers to defend him. "We cannot believe he could kill anyone," Hafiz Abdur Rashid Badini told AP at the family's mud-walled compound in Killi Badini village.

He said that as a child, Badini, a Sunni Muslim, had made friends with Shiites and was not particularly religious. "How can we believe the government that he has killed hundreds of people?"

Sunni Muslims make up about 80 percent of Pakistan's 150 million population, and Shiites 17 percent. Most live peacefully together but small extremist groups from both sects often stage attacks.