LUCKNOW, India (Reuters) – Indian police have arrested six Islamic militants, including a cleric who helped plan bomb blasts in the Hindu holy city of Varanasi last month which left 18 people dead and dozens wounded.
Police said on Wednesday the cleric, Waliullah, was an Indian who acted as the local commander of a Bangladeshi Islamic militant group, Harkatul Jihad-al Islami, and was a conduit for three Bangladeshis who carried out the Varanasi blasts.
“Waliullah is the mastermind who got his contacts in Bangladesh to send three militants for carrying out the Varanasi blasts,” senior police officer S.K. Bhagat told a news conference in Lucknow, capital of the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
The cleric, from a rural mosque in Uttar Pradesh state where Varanasi is located, provided the bombers shelter ahead of the blasts and carried out reconnaissance of targets in Varanasi including a historic temple, police said.
The bombers have now returned to Bangladesh, police said.
Waliullah was also accused of sending the five other arrested men — — four of whom were from Uttar Pradesh and one from the eastern state of West Bengal — to Pakistan through Bangladesh to attend a militant training camp conducted by Inter-Services Intelligence, the Pakistani spy agency.
Police said the five were not linked to the Varanasi blasts.
Waliullah, who spoke to reporters under armed police guard, said he was inspired by Islamic militant video cassettes.
“I sent these five men to Bangladesh from where my contact Asadullah sent them over to Pakistan to attend the 28-day ISI training camp,” he said, wearing a black hood with eye and mouth holes.
Police said they had recovered plastic explosives, grenades and weapons including an AK-47 assault rifle from the men.
New Delhi accuses neighboring Pakistan and Bangladesh of harboring anti-India Islamic militants, a charge both Islamabad and Dhaka deny.
Three days after the Varanasi attacks on March 7, police detained eight people on suspicion of involvement but all were released as they were not found to be linked to the blasts.
In October last year, Bangladesh banned Harkatul Jihad for terrorist activities.