KARACHI: As investigators in France probe whether the deadly bomb attack on French engineers at Karachi’s Sheraton hotel in May 2002 had anything to do with alleged kickbacks received for the Agosta-class submarines, officials in power back then say that at that time there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that this was purely an act of terrorism.
Lieutenant-General (retd) Moinuddin Haider, who was the federal interior minister during that year, recalled: “There was no talk about corruption or kickbacks as being one of the reasons behind the attack. This is all which has happened now.”
Haider was told two militant groups were behind the Sheraton attack and the subsequent strike on the US consulate in June the same year: the Harkatul Mujahideen al Almi (HuMA) and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ).
In fact, authorities nabbed dozens of suspects allegedly belonging to both these groups on suspicion for the attacks.
The question now is, what would be the fate of these militants, some of whom have been already convicted by courts, if the theory holds true that kickbacks and some other groups were involved in the Sheraton attack.
On June 29, 2002, Karachi police had published pictures of 10 alleged LeJ militants involved in the bombings along with prize money totaling Rs20m.
In September of the same year, eight more suspects belonging to the HuMA were reported to have been picked up.
In December 2002, police claimed a ‘breakthrough’ by nabbing the alleged mastermind of the Sheraton attack, Asif Zaheer, also a HuMA militant.
Again in April, 2004, police claimed to have apprehended another HuMA mastermind, Syed Sohail Akhtar alias Mustafa, who was absconding in the 2002 bombing cases. Then in September 2005, police said they had caught a very dangerous HuMA suspect, Mufti Mohammad Sabir, who fitted the bomb to the car used in the Sheraton attack.
A senior investigation officer, who in 2002 was working as a liaison officer with the New Zealand cricket team staying at the Pearl-Continental Hotel opposite Sheraton, said on condition of anonymity that all investigative teams formed after that incident had concluded that militants belonging to the HMA were behind the attack.
“As far as we are concerned, we closed the file on the Sheraton attack a long time ago,” he said.
The officer said at least three of the HuMA militants were on death row, while several others involved in the bomb attacks and assassination attempt on President Musharraf were languishing in jails. However, he was not clear whether some might have been released over the years.
Haider, however, admitted that there were some troubling questions back then to which no one had a definite answer. “There was much talk about why would the militants target the French? That too engineers who were helping Pakistan to strengthen its naval defence systems,” he said, adding that some thought they mistook the French for Americans and eventually struck their ‘real’ target, the US consulate, two weeks later.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 21st, 2010.