Pakistani investigators say they are close to arresting members of a Taliban splinter group that has claimed responsibility for last month's assassination of Chaudry Zulfiqar Ali, the chief prosecutor in the killing of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto who was also investigating the alleged involvement of Pakistanis in the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India.
Ali was shot and killed by three men May 3 in a brazen morning assault as he drove from his home in Islamabad to court in nearby Rawalpindi. The name of the previously unknown group, Mujahideen-e-Islam (Devotees of Islam), was found signed on a pamphlet left at the scene of Ali's killing. Investigators have since determined that the group is a splinter group of the Pakistani Taliban organization Tehreek-e-Taliban.
"We have tracked down the whole network of Mujahideen-e-Islam and now a strategy is being finalized to conduct raids on its hideouts in different areas," a member of a multi-agency team probing the killing told UPI.com last month, requesting anonymity. The team includes senior officials from police and intelligence agencies.
He said that after going through substantial forensic and circumstantial evidence, "we are sure the outfit is involved in this killing," He refused to elaborate further.
"We have made significant headway in the probe and are close to busting the gang behind the crime," the team member, an investigator, said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the issue.
He named "the gang" as the Mujahideen-e-Islam, adding, "We are hopeful of arresting the culprits."
Ali's assassination marked another bloody twist in the investigation into Bhutto's assassination December 27, 2007, as she campaigned for re-election just two months after returning home from self-imposed exile.
Ali was a special public prosecutor with the Federal Investigation Agency, a national law enforcement agency heading investigations into high-profile crimes and terror attacks, including Bhutto's assassination. He was killed as he drove to court to submit charges against retired General Pervez Musharraf for failing to provide adequate security for Bhutto during her election rallies while he was president.
The ex-military chief was arrested April 25 and interrogated in connection with the charges. He had also just returned from exile to run in last month's legislative elections. He has been under house arrest for nearly two months and is barred from leaving the country.
The joint investigation team probing Ali's killing is headed by Deputy Inspector General of Police Tahir Alam Khan. Other top police and representatives of three intelligence agencies, including the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence, are on the team.
The investigator said the team had seized a car that had been used in the crime and was tracing its owner. Ali's mobile phone was also providing clues, he said.
"Data gleaned from the prosecutor's cell phone has helped a lot in deciding the direction of the investigation," he told UPI Next.
Police had seized a bag from the scene of the killing containing a Beretta pistol, another cell phone and a pamphlet inscribed with a message from Mujahideen-e-Islam. The message states: "Those who help punish Mujahideen will meet the same fate," the investigator said.
Pakistani authorities have arrested five Taliban militants suspected of involvement in Bhutto's assassination. Investigators have said all five are members of the Tehreek-e-Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban based in the tribal regions bordering Afghanistan.
The investigator claimed the slain prosecutor had gathered enough "prosecutable" evidence against three of the five suspects and had been trying to get them convicted.
Ali had been receiving threats for pursuing Bhutto's suspected killers. Last year the government provided him with additional security after he reported threats to his life.
"Terrorist outfits were involved in Benazir's killing, and they are hell-bent to eliminate every person and every piece of evidence linked to the case," an intelligence official told UPI Next. He spoke on condition of anonymity as he is not authorized to speak to the press,
Ali was the second important person directly linked with the case to be gunned down in broad daylight, said Taj Haider, a senior leader of the Pakistan People's Party, which Bhutto had led.
Khalid Shahenshah, a close aide to Bhutto and a key eyewitness in her killing, was killed by unidentified gunmen in July 2008 outside his home in Karachi.
"The terrorists have been using their nefarious tactics to eliminate everybody linked to the case," Haider told UPI Next.
Police blamed Shahenshah's murder on unspecified "terrorists". No arrests have been made.
"All clues in Shahenshah's killing lead to terrorists based in tribal areas, where the investigation team cannot go to pursue the killers," a senior police officer in Karachi told UPI Next by telephone. He would not provide his name because he is not authorized to speak publicly.
A week before he was killed, Ali had received a telephone call ordering him to drop the Bhutto case, according to one of his close friends. Investigators later traced the phone number to Afghanistan, the friend said.
"He was a bold and outspoken lawyer. He didn't care about the threats. He just wanted to bring the culprits behind Benazir's assassination to justice," the friend, who requested that his name not to be used because of the sensitivity of the case, told UPI Next.
A few hours before he was killed, the prosecutor spoke to journalist Zubair Qureshi about the case.
"He said to me: 'I'm working on an important file related to the Bhutto murder case and I will submit it with the court by the morning,'" Qureshi told UPI Next, quoting the prosecutor.
"He said: 'The culprits will be sentenced in just a few weeks now,'" Qureshi added.
The Musharraf government blamed Bhutto's assassination on Baitullah Mehsud, then the Pakistani Taliban chief, who was later killed in a U.S. drone strike in the tribal areas district of South Waziristan on August 5, 2009.
Raza Rumi, a director at the Jinnah Institute, an independent policy research and public advocacy think tank, said militants and "powerful patrons of militants within the state" were hampering efforts to convict any of the suspects in Bhutto's killing.
"They know they will stand exposed if the Benazir murder case is prosecuted in a professional manner," Rumi told UPI Next.