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Friday, May 21, 2010

US warns of terror link to Pakistan catering firm


ISLAMABAD – The U.S. Embassy warned Friday that terrorist groups may have "established links" to an upscale catering company in Pakistan that security officials said was owned by a suspect arrested over the failed car bombing in Times Square.

The suspect who owned Hanif Rajput Catering Service was among a group of six that have been detained in Pakistan since the May 1 botched attack in New York, said a senior Pakistani intelligence officer who gave details on the identities of those arrested on condition his own name not be used.

The group appeared to be wealthy and educated members of Pakistan's small urban elite.

They included the owner of a large computer shop in Islamabad who allegedly called the prime suspect detained in the United States, Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad, urging him to flee the country; a man who worked for a cell phone company who had an MBA from the United States; and a retired army major and his brother, who was a computer engineer.

An army spokesman earlier this week denied a media report that the former major had been arrested in the case.

In an unusual statement on its website that was e-mailed to Americans in Pakistan, the embassy said U.S. government personnel had been instructed to avoid using Rajput, a well-known firm that has been used by the American embassy and other foreign missions in the capital.

The message said Rajput was owned by Rana Ashraf Khan and his son Salman Ashraf Khan.

Earlier this week, a senior security official had named a suspect arrested in Pakistan over links to Shahzad as Salman Ashraf, whom the intelligence officer confirmed was the owner of Rajput.

The security official said another arrested suspect was a cousin of Salman Ashraf. He said both men were suspected of having financial links with Shahzad. The official also spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the investigation.

A man who answered the phone at Rajput declined to comment on the allegations made by the U.S. Embassy.

A biography on the Rajput website said Salman Ashraf Khan studied in Houston, Texas, before returning home to help run the family business. It said Rana Ashraf Khan worked for Pakistan International Airlines for 20 years and then started the catering firm.

Rajput cooks for large parties, providing food, cutlery and grand tents at embassy compounds and the homes of the well-to-do in Islamabad and other cities.

Shahzad is accused of leaving an SUV rigged with a homemade car bomb in Times Square on May 1. The bomb failed to explode. He was arrested May 3 at John F. Kennedy International Airport while heading to Dubai.

U.S. authorities suspect he had contact with members of the Pakistani Taliban in their hideouts in the northwest of the Pakistan close to the Afghan border. Pakistan says it is cooperating with the probe, but has released little information about what it is finding.

Shahzad was born in Pakistan but moved to the United States when he was 18. He is the son of former air force vice marshal and led a privileged life. He has family roots in the major northwestern city of Peshawar, but he grew up in at least one other city, Karachi, relatives and officials have said.

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