NEW DELHI – Muhammad Habib Zahir, the former Pakistan Army colonel who recently disappeared from Lumbini near Nepal’s border with India, is now suspected to be in Indian custody, according to media reports.
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The Indian Express, quoting its sources in the security establishment, said in a report Wednesday that Indian agencies had been on Zahir’s trail for long. Last seen in Lumbini, Zahir was in the team that nabbed Indian Naval Commander Kulbhushan Jadhav in March 2016 on espionage charges, it added.
Jadhav, in pursuit of targets set by his RAW handlers, was arrested by Pakistani authorities on March 3, last year, when he attempted to cross over into the country from the Saravan border in Iran. He was sentenced to death by the FGCM on April 10, 2017.
According to the latest report, the Pakistan military court’s decision to award the death penalty to Jadhav was tied to the disappearance of Zahir.
“Zahir was at the Indo-Nepal border last week. He was in the team that had trailed Jadhav. There is definitely a connection between the two cases,” an Indian officer said.
“No sooner did the Pakistani authorities learn of Zahir’s disappearance, Jadhav was pronounced guilty of being a spy. The purpose is clear. They didn’t want any Indian agency to go public,” the officer was quoted as saying by The Indian Express.
“Zahir retired from the Pakistan Army on in 2014 but was said to have been engaged thereafter by the ISI for its covert operations. In 2015, he picked up conversations between Jadhav and his family members and started tracking him.”
“Jadhav used an Indian passport issued in the name of Hussein Mubarak Patel to carry out his dhow business in Iran. Pakistani agencies heard him speaking to his family members in Marathi. Zahir started trailing Jadhav. A trap was laid and Jadhav was apprehended in March 2016.”
The newspaper was also informed by its sources that Zahir was lured to Nepal with the promise of a “big catch”. The man who turned in Zahir connected with him through a UK phone number to pass “information on a mole”. He met Zahir a couple of times in Oman.
“Zahir arrived in Oman on April 2 and reached Kathmandu the next day. On his arrival in Nepal, he was handed over a SIM card at Bhairawa. Zahir was told that this was to facilitate his communication with a point person. From there, he was made to travel to Lumbini near the border,” the officer said.
According to reports in Pakistani media, Lt Col (r) Muhammad Habib Zahir retired from service in October 2014 and had been working at Rafhan Mills in Faisalabad. Zahir had posted his resume on job portal LinkedIn and on the UN website.
“A month ago, a man named Mark Thomson contacted the ex-army officer through email and from a UK phone number claiming Zahir had been shortlisted for the job of vice president/zonal director with a salary package of $3,500-8,500 per month and asked him to come to Kathmandu, Nepal for an interview on April 6,” a report in Express Tribune said.
Zahir was sent a business class ticket for April 5 to Kathmandu via Oman. According to the initial investigation, a man named Javed Ansari received him at Oman and provided him a Nepali cell phone number.
Pakistani newspaper Dawn then reported that “subsequent probing by his family and friends showed that the UK telephone number from which he had received the telephone call for the interview was a computer-generated one, while the email domain and its associated website were registered in India. This has prompted concerns that the Indian spy agency R&AW could have been behind the abduction plot.”
To further establish its claim, the Indian media is quoting statements of Zahir’s family who believe he was picked by “an enemy spy agency”.
Zahir’s son Saad lodged an FIR with Rawat police station near Rawalpindi, saying his father was received in Nepal by one Javed Ansari who took him to Lumbini.
“We suspect that my father has been abducted and enemy spy agencies might be responsible for it,” Saad was quoted by a police officer as saying. “Enemy” word is often used for India in Pakistani security circles.
Zahir last contacted his family on Thursday afternoon and since then his telephone numbers were found to be switched off.