Karachi, Pakistan — The key suspect in the disappearance here of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl may have fled to Pakistan's most populous province, police said Saturday, insisting they still hope to free Pearl soon.
Kamal Shah, chief of police in Sindh province, said Ahmad Omar Saeed Sheikh may have left Karachi and "was reported to be in the Punjab" a sprawling province that runs along Pakistan's border with India.
He said investigators were trying to track Saeed.
"We feel we are close," he said. "We can't give you a timeframe. But we don't think we are far off."
Pearl, the newspaper's 38-year-old South Asian bureau chief, was abducted Jan. 23 en route to a meeting with Muslim extremist contacts. Police believe Saeed, a British-born Islamic militant, masterminded the kidnapping.
Pearl was believed to be investigating links between Pakistani militants and Richard C. Reid, a Briton arrested on a Paris-to-Miami flight in December with explosives in his shoes.
Most of Saeed's family live in the Punjab. In an attempt to flush Saeed out, police have detained several of his family members, including his 90-year-old grandfather, Ismail. Some, including the grandfather, have since been released, although police are still holding two of Saeed's cousins.
Reached by telephone at his home in the Punjab city of Lahore, the grandfather said he has not seen Saeed "in weeks."
Pakistan's interior minister, Moinuddin Haider, confirmed Saturday that Saeed is a prime suspect, the first time the government has publicly connected him to the case.
Saeed was arrested in India in 1994, although never charged, for the kidnapping of Western backpackers. He was freed five years later along with two other Islamic extremists in exchange for passengers on an Indian Airlines flight that was hijacked to Kandahar, Afghanistan.
Another of those freed, Masood Azhar, is the leader of Jaish-e-Mohammed, or Army of Mohammed, an Islamic extremist group with close ties to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terror network.
Pearl's kidnapping has been an embarrassment to the government of President Pervez Musharraf ahead of his visit to Washington next week. Police and government officials have said repeatedly over the past week that they are closing in on Pearl's captors.
On Saturday, Musharraf's chief spokesman, Maj. Gen. Rashid Quereshi, said police spoke too soon.
"We heard a couple of days back, you know, that we'll recover him in a day or two," Quereshi told The Associated Press. "These have been reported by various people, police people, which I think is an incorrect thing to do. One should not make statements like this until one is absolutely sure."
"People that I spoke to, they were hopeful. But they can't put a date to when they expect to recover him or catch the culprits," Quereshi said. "Commenting on his (Pearl's) status and things like that jeopardizes the whole investigation and maybe his own security."