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The Rediff Special/ Sheela Bhatt in Vadodara
Exclusive: Godhra clouds PM's Pak tour
May 17, 2006
Salim Paanwala, one of the prime accused in the Godhra massacre of February 27, 2002, is hiding in Pakistan, say the investigators.
"We have forwarded the information regarding Salim Paanwala's hideout in Karachi to the Central Bureau of Investigation," Rakesh Asthaana, inspector general of police, Baroda Range, told rediff.com
"We would like them to send a request for an Interpol Red Corner notice against Paanwala," added Asthana, who is also the supervising officer of the Special Investigating Team investigating the Godhra case.
The S-6 compartment of the Sabarmati Express caught fire in Godhra, Gujarat, on February 27, 2002, killing 59 people, and sparking off riots in the state, which killed over 1,000 people.
The Gujarat police has reportedly collected evidence of Paanwala's presence in Karachi.
The police's claim -- which has far-reaching implications -- will also impact Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's proposed Pakistan visit.
The prime minister has been invited to attend a religious ceremony in Nankana Sahib in Pakistan next month. Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf is keen to convert Prime Minister Singh's visit into a summit-level meeting.
The prime minister's proposed visit comes at a crucial juncture in India-Pakistan relations.
If and when the summit takes place, the prime minister is expected to raise the issue of the extradition of Dawood Ibrahim, the prime accused in the March 12, 1993 Mumbai serial blasts.
The verdict in the Mumbai blasts case is likely soon. However, Justice P D Kode's Special Court could delay the verdict if the case against Abu Salem -- a co-accused in the blasts who was extradited from Portugal -- is clubbed with the old case.
If and when he meets General Musharraf, the Gujarat police's claim will put more pressure on Prime Minister Singh to raise the issue of Indian criminals being given shelter in Pakistan.
However, politics could come into play in the Godhra case.
The CBI may not accept the Gujarat police's claim about Paanwala because that will contradict the theory that the Sabarmati Express fire was an accident.
The Justice U C Banerjee Committee -- set up by the Indian Railways to probe the Godhra fire -- has concluded that the S-6 compartment fire was not the result of a pre-planned conspiracy, but an accident.
The Congress party's Gujarat unit pooh-poohs the state police's claim that the Godhra massacre was planned and executed by a group of Islamic fundamentalists living in the Signal Falia area of Godhra town.
Railway Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav and the Communist parties -- partners in the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance coalition in power in New Delhi -- are likely to oppose any decision by the CBI to forward the Gujarat police's request to Interpol for a Red Corner notice against Paanwala.
The Gujarat police still do not know who masterminded the Godhra fire, but they claim to know who executed the crime that inflamed communal passions in the state.
Out of the four main accused, Maulvi Omerji and Razzak Kurkur have been arrested. Farooq Bhana and Salim Paanwala are absconding. Some unconfirmed reports claim Bhana is hiding in Bangladesh.
Gujarat police sources say it took 20 months for Paanwala to reach Pakistan via Afghanistan. He crossed the Afghanistan-Pakistan border on foot, they add.
Paanwala, the owner of a small paan shop at the Godhra railway station, was the kingpin of a railway ticket blackmarketing racket, the police allege.
According to the charge-sheet filed in the court of Justice Sonia Gokani, Paanwala played a pivotal role in the Sabarmati Express fire.
The charge-sheet says a number of eye-witnesses have said at around 10.30 pm on the night of February 26, 2002, Paanwala bought petrol from a petrol station, and that he held a midnight meeting with the other prime accused, including Omerji and Kurkur.
The charge-sheet claims Paanwala provoked a mob attack the train so that his boys could take advantage of the chaos to get into the S-6 compartment and set fire to it.
The state police also believe that along with Paanwala, three or four more accused in the Godhra massacre are hiding in Pakistan.
Dawood Ibrahim is a perennial bone of contention between New Delhi and Islamabad. Now, the Gujarat police's claim adds one more name to the long list of disputes between the nuclear neighbours.
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