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Rauf Escape Hurts Musharraf's Credibility

This article was written by CBS News reporter Farhan Bokhari in Islamabad.

Pakistan's security services on Sunday were continuing a major search for Rashid Rauf, a Pakistani-British man suspected of involvement in a plot last year to blow up airliners flying from London's Heathrow airport to destinations in the United States.

More than 24 hours after Rauf's escape from police custody in Islamabad on Saturday, there were growing fears that he may have tried heading towards the volatile northwest frontier province (NWFP) bordering Afghanistan, possibly with the intention of crossing the rugged mountainous border in to Afghan territory. The NWFP has the largest concentration of Pakistan's Islamist groups backed by Al Qaeda which includes some who are likely to be sympathetic to people like Rauf, western diplomats based in Pakistan said.

"At this point, it is simply impossible to tell if Rashid Rauf is in Pakistan. But if he has somehow or the other managed to cross over (into Afghanistan), that will be terrible" said a Pakistani official who spoke to CBS News on the condition of anonymity. "If this man does not get arrested very soon, finding him will be like looking for a needle in a haystack" added the official.

On Saturday, Rauf escaped from the custody of up to twelve Pakistani policemen from outside a court in Islamabad after he appeared before a judge. Eyewitnesses among lawyers who were near the court premises said they had not heard gunfire, which suggested that the escape did not involve an organized, armed attempt to rescue Rauf.

Western diplomats on Sunday were dismayed over news of Rauf's escape with some arguing that the case will further diminish the increasingly fragile credibility of President Pervez Musharraf's pro-U.S. regime.

During this year, Musharraf has presided over an increasing breakdown of security conditions across Pakistan as the country has faced growing violence linked to Islamic hardliners.

Islamic militants across the NWFP have opened up new anti-government fronts, such as in the scenic Swat valley, going well beyond the tribal areas which have been the traditional area of their activity. Al Qaeda backed Islamic militants have also stepped up their anti-government activity by staging a growing number of suicide attacks, especially against military targets.

"This (Rashid Rauf's) escape is a big blow to this government. They have pretended all along that they are determined to fight militants, but when you have such a high profile terrorist escaping from police custody, you have to ask questions about the way in which the Pakistanis are handling such operations" said a senior western diplomat who spoke to CBS News on condition of anonymity.

Retired Lieutenant General Talat Masood, a widely respected commentator on national and security affairs, told CBS News that Rauf's escape will "only strengthen the impression that there is a complete breakdown in the structure which is necessary to fight terrorism and militancy. If there are gaps in the policing network and high profile terrorists can not be fully protected, then there has got to be a great deal of concern and anxiety".