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General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's military ruler, has claimed this month's arrest of a senior al-Qaeda operative has helped to “break the back” of the terrorist organisation, severing the links between the central command and members on the ground.

In his first interview since the arrest this month of Abu Faraj al-Liby, al-Qaeda's alleged number three, Gen Musharraf said: “We have broken their back. They cease to exist as a cohesive, homogenous body under good command and control, vertical and horizontal.”

Some European security experts have been sceptical about Mr al-Liby's importance to the terrorist network, but Gen Musharraf maintained that his capture was “very significant” and that it had led to other key arrests in Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi.

“He is the man who was in charge of al-Qaeda operations, internal and external and, of course, on a personal basis the man who masterminded the suicide attacks on me,” Mr Musharraf, the target of two assassination attempts in December 2003, told the Financial Times.

“Whatever they are now capable of doing is individual and group actions divorced from central command and co-ordinated centrally. They are on the run in the mountains, not in contact with each other,” he added.

However, Mr Musharraf, the chief of the Pakistani army, said the al-Liby arrest, hailed by President George W. Bush as “a critical victory in the war on terror”, had failed to produce any clues to the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden.

During the interview, the army general also called for “maximum punishment” for any US soldiers found guilty of desecrating the Koran at a Guantánamo Bay interrogation centre. Later, Newsweek said it had erred in its report that a copy of the Koran had been put down a toilet at the camp in Cuba. Anti-US riots over the report have seen more than a dozen killed in Afghanistan.

Mr Musharraf was adamant he would not be persuaded by the US to drop plans to build a gas pipeline from Iran. This would cross Pakistan and India and is seen as a cornerstone of a two-year-old peace process between the two neighbours.

Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, has warned the countries against proceeding with the $4.5bn (€3.5bn) pipeline, which State Department officials say could expose energy-deficient India and Pakistan to US sanctions.

Gen Musharraf maintained he would take a decision by year-end that would be based solely on Pakistan's national interest.

Qatar and Turkmenistan could provide politically easier substitutes for Iranian gas, but both face considerable logistical difficulties.

He said: “We are short of energy. We want gas immediately. Our industry is suffering; investment coming to Pakistan is suffering, so Pakistan's interest is to get gas fast. Iran is the fastest source.”

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