ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan has arrested a French man accused of being a prominent al-Qaida militant, officials said Wednesday, a reminder of the country's vital role in the war on terror at a time of deteriorating relations with the U.S.
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. The president has called for parliament to elect a new prime minister on Friday after Yousuf Raza Gilani was dismissed over a corruption probe.
The French national, Naamen Meziche, was captured in a raid in the Baluchistan region near the border with Iran, officials said, without specifying when this took place.
The officials did not give their names in keeping with the policy of the Pakistani security forces.
Torsten Voss, the deputy head of Hamburg's branch of Germany's domestic intelligence service, said Meziche was known to be part of the militant scene in the northern port city. Voss said Meziche left the city for Pakistan in 2009 with a group of others.
Among those were Ahmad Wali Siddiqui, who was last month found guilty of membership in a terrorist organization and sentenced to six years in prison.
Siddiqui was captured by U.S. troops in Afghanistan in 2010. Information he provided to authorities on alleged al-Qaida plots targeting European cities prompted Germany and other nations to raise alert levels at Christmas time that year but no attacks materialized.
Another in the group was German-Syrian dual national Rami Makanesi, who was convicted last year in a Frankfurt state court of membership in al-Qaida and sentenced to four years and nine months in prison. He was arrested in Pakistan in June 2010 and extradited to Germany.
The two have implicated Meziche in also training at the same al-Qaida camps in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region, Voss said.
In Pakistan, 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. U.S. 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.
The arrest highlights the Pakistani security forces' key role in the anti-al-Qaida campaign, even as the U.S. and Pakistan are going through a rocky period.
The U.S. 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-Qaida leader's presence. The raid infuriated the Pakistani military because it was not told about it ahead of time and proved powerless to stop it.
Then in November, U.S. 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 U.S.
The U.S. has accused Pakistan of not doing enough to confront militant groups. During a June 7 visit to Kabul, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the U.S. 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 U.S. 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.
Complicating the picture further is Pakistan's internal political turmoil.
The Supreme Court dismissed Prime Minister Gilani along with his Cabinet on Tuesday for his failure to ask Switzerland to investigate his ally President Asif Ali Zardari for corruption.
On Wednesday, Pakistan's president summoned parliament to meet Friday to elect a new prime minister. In moving quickly to install a new premier, 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.
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, elections 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.
Associated Press writers Munir Ahmed and Asif Shahzid in Islamabad and David Rising in Berlin contributed to this report.