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Pakistan defends Islamist target of US bounty

ISLAMABAD -- An Islamist leader who had a US$10 million American bounty placed on his head this week has been helping Pakistan de-radicalize militants under efforts to stabilize the strategic U.S. ally, a top Pakistani counter-terrorism official said on Friday.

Hafiz Saeed, suspected of masterminding an attack by Pakistan-based gunmen on India's financial capital Mumbai in 2008 that killed 166 people, including six Americans, met government officials from the Punjab province and pledged his support for the drive, the official said.

“Hafiz Saeed has agreed with the Punjab government program of de-radicalization and rehabilitation of former jihadis and extended full cooperation,” the counter-terrorism official told Reuters.

The counter-terrorism official said that Saeed had not been paid for his de-radicalization activities.

U.S. officials in Washington said the decision to offer the reward under the State Department's longstanding “Rewards for Justice” program came after months of discussions among U.S. agencies involved in counter-terrorism.

The US$10 million figure signifies major U.S. interest in Saeed. Only three other militants, including Taliban leader Mullah Omar, fetch that high a bounty. There is an US$25 million bounty on the head of al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The announcement of a reward for Saeed comes at a time of strained ties between the United States and Pakistan and is likely to increase pressure on Islamabad to take action against one of Pakistan's most notorious Islamist leaders.

A senior police official in Punjab province, who is closely involved with investigations into militant activity, confirmed that Saeed and his supporters were helping efforts to transform militants into law-abiding citizens.

“Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JUD) were consulted, and they approved the de-radicalization plan. They assured us of their intellectual input and resource materials. They also offered teachers,” he told Reuters, referring to the charity Saeed heads.

International law does not prohibit the United States from paying money for information that may lead to the arrest of an alleged criminal, said Professor Sarah Knuckey of New York University Law School.

Legal questions would arise if, for example, the United States set out to arrest Saeed on the territory of another state or targeted him for killing. “There should be more efforts to lawfully arrest and prosecute alleged criminals, instead of the use of drones strikes and targeted killings,” Knuckey said.

The bounty highlighted the divide between the United States' direct approach to tackling militancy, and strategies employed by Pakistan, a nuclear-armed South Asian nation seen as critical to U.S. efforts to pacifying Afghanistan.

While Pakistan has mounted offensives against militant groups like the homegrown Taliban, it also contends other tactics such as de-radicalization are vital to sustaining battlefield gains.

Yahya Mujahid, the JuD spokesman, said the group had not participated in the de-radicalisaton program.

Hafiz Khalid Waleed, another senior JUD member, declined to comment on whether the Islamist leader had been directly assisting the government in de-radicalization.

But he said Saeed and his followers were promoting non-violence.

“Hafiz Saeed was one of the first religious leaders to denounce militancy and suicide bombings,” said Waleed. “Our schools and madrassas (religious seminaries) are urging peace.”

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A supporter of Pakistani religious group Jamaat-ud-Dawwa stands on a representation of a U.S. flag before setting it on fire during a protest rally in Karachi, Pakistan, Friday, April 6. Nationwide protests condemned the United States for putting US$10 million bounty on Hafiz Saeed, founder of the Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba. (AP)

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