Nirupama Subramanian

Mullah Obaidullah was Defence Minister

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan is abuzz with the news that Mullah Obaidullah Akhud, described as a deputy to the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, has been arrested in the Balochistan capital Quetta, but the Government has yet to officially confirm the "high value" catch.

Mullah Obaidullah was the Defence Minister in Afghanistan's Taliban government that was ousted in the U.S. military action in 2001.

In an apparently unrelated incident, a bomb fixed to a bicycle went off near a court in Multan in Punjab province on Friday, killing three policemen and seriously injuring an anti-terrorism judge. Seven others were also wounded in the explosion.

The remote-controlled bomb went off when the judge's car passed the parked bicycle on its way to the court. The explosion killed the driver of the car and two policemen escorting the vehicle. The judge is in hospital battling serious injuries. His car was badly damaged in the blast. Most of the other injured persons were policemen.

Mullah Obaidullah is described as the Taliban's military commander, an important figure in the insurgency in Afghanistan. He is said to be one of three or four top Taliban leaders with direct access to Mullah Omar.

A report in the Dawn newspaper quoted an unnamed intelligence official as saying Mullah Obaidullah was arrested on Monday, the day U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney was here on a brief visit for talks with President Pervez Musharraf. But the official said the arrest was not timed for the visit, and had been planned long before.

While the U.S. has praised Pakistan for its contribution to the war on terror, important figures in the Bush Administration, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, have asserted in recent days that the Taliban is regrouping in Pakistan for a spring offensive in Afghanistan.

Two other Taliban leaders, Amir Khan Haqqani, commander in Zabul, and Abdul Bari, the former governor of Helmand province in Afghanistan, are also reported to have been arrested with Mullah Obaidullah.

Gen. Muhsarraf recently said that no Taliban leader of any significance was present in Pakistani territory, but the arrest, if confirmed, would prove that assertion wrong.Mullah Obaidullah would bethe senior-most Taliban leader to be arrested after 2001.