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Key figure in Taliban believed captured

Ex-defense chief held in Pakistan raid, official says

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Pakistan has arrested former Taliban defense minister Mullah Obaidullah Akhund, regarded as a top figure in the Afghanistan insurgency, a Pakistani intelligence official said today.

Akhund was among five Taliban suspects arrested in a raid on a home in the southwestern city of Quetta this week, said the official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to comment to journalists.

Akhund, said to be a key associate of Mullah Omar, the fugitive Taliban leader, would be the most senior leader from the hard-line militia to be apprehended since its ouster from power in Afghanistan over five years ago.

There was no immediate official confirmation from the Pakistani government.

Brigadier Javed Iqbal Cheema, a senior Interior Ministry official handling counterterrorism issues, denied yesterday that a top Taliban figure had been arrested. Tariq Khosa, police chief of Baluchistan Province, where Quetta is located, said he was not aware of Akhund's arrest.

The New York Times, citing two unnamed Pakistani government officials, said Akhund was arrested on Monday, the day Vice President Dick Cheney visited Pakistan, which is under growing international pressure to crack down on Taliban militants believed to seek sanctuary within its borders. Pakistan has repeatedly denied allegations from Afghan and Western officials that insurgent leaders shelter in Quetta.

During his visit, Cheney had expressed concern to President General Pervez Musharraf over Al Qaeda regrouping inside Pakistan's tribal regions and an expected Taliban spring offensive in neighboring Afghanistan.

The intelligence official said Akhund's arrest was a planned operation and was not linked to Cheney's visit.

He said the raid was carried out by Pakistani security officials, acting on a tip from US officials. He said that seven more Taliban suspects had been arrested, also in Quetta, later in the week.