Pakistan releases from house arrest Islamist blamed for 2008 Mumbai attacks

Hafiz Saeed (centre), the head of banned Islamic charity Jamat ud Dawa, waves to supporters after he was released by a court in Lahore, Pakistan on Nov 22, 2017. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

LAHORE/ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - A firebrand Pakistani Islamist accused of masterminding a bloody 2008 assault in the Indian city of Mumbai was released from house arrest on Friday (NOv 24) and told his cheering supporters his freedom was vindication of his denial of guilt.

Hafiz Saeed, who has a US$10 million (S$13.5 million) US bounty on his head, had been under house arrest since January after living freely in Pakistan for years, a sore point in Pakistan's often fraught relations with both the United States and India.

Saeed has repeatedly denied involvement in the 2008 Mumbai attacks in which 10 gunmen attacked targets in India's largest city, including two luxury hotels, a Jewish centre and a train station in a rampage that killed 166 people. A Singaporean lawyer died in the attacks.

The assault brought nuclear-armed neighbours Pakistan and India to the brink of war.

"I'm happy that no allegation against me was proved, which could have done damage to me, or my country's interests," Saeed told supporters after his release in the city of Lahore, according to a video released by the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) Islamist charity, which he heads.

"Thank God, we were vindicated."

The United States says the JuD is a front for the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) militant group, which Saeed founded and which has been blamed for a string of high-profile attacks in India.

Pakistan officially banned the Lashkar-e-Taiba in 2002.

A court on Wednesday ordered an end to Saeed's house arrest. He was shown celebrating with his supporters in the video, sharing sweets and chocolate cakes.

Habibullah Salafi, another JuD official, said earlier supporters were arriving at Saeed's home to celebrate ahead of Friday prayers.

"Today, he will lead Friday prayers at Al-Qadsia," Salafi added, referring to the headquarters of the JuD.

There was no immediate comment from India, which has for years called for Saeed's prosecution for the Mumbai attacks.

Saeed blamed India for his incarceration in Pakistan.

He has long campaigned in support of Muslim separatists in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, which Pakistan also claims.

India accuses Pakistan of supporting the LeT and other separatists battling in the Indian part of divided Kashmir. Pakistan denies that.

Saeed vowed no let up in "fighting Kashmir's case".

"Our struggle will continue, God willing. We will get all the people of Pakistan to stand by us," he said.

While Saeed was under house arrest, his JuD charity launched a political party, the Milli Muslim League (MML), which has won thousands of votes in by-elections.

Senior government and retired military figures say the party has the backing of Pakistan's powerful military. The military denies any direct involvement in civilian politics.

MML officials have privately said that the party is controlled by Saeed, but it is not clear if Saeed would seek to contest elections or launch a political career.

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