WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The slaying of a Pakistani journalist in late May apparently was sanctioned by elements of the Islamabad government, the top-ranking U.S. military officer said on Thursday, adding that he could not confirm involvement of the country's powerful intelligence service.
Admiral Mike Mullen said he didn't have a "string of evidence" linking the death of Pakistani journalist Saleem Shahzad to a specific government agency, but "I have not seen anything that would disabuse that report that the government knew about this."
"It was sanctioned by the government, yeah," he told reporters from the Pentagon Press Association in the most explicit public remarks to date on the case by a senior U.S. official.
Shahzad, who worked for Hong Kong-based Asia Times Online, disappeared from Islamabad on May 29 and his body was found in a canal two days later bearing what police said were signs of torture.
The killing prompted intense speculation about the possible involvement of the Pakistani military's Inter-Services Intelligence agency, one of the most powerful institutions in a country with a weak civilian government. The ISI rejected suggestions it was involved.
Pakistan's military and the ISI were deeply embarrassed by the discovery of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden living in a garrison town near Islamabad. U.S. special operations forces killed bin Laden in a raid on his compound in May, severely straining relations with Islamabad.
Before his death, Shahzad had been investigating and writing about alleged ties between the ISI and militant groups.
He had reported that an attack on Pakistan's PNS Mehran navy base was carried out by al Qaeda militants after talks failed to secure the release of two naval officials accused of having ties to militants.
Asked about Shahzad, Mullen said he had "huge concern" over his disappearance and death, noting that it was not the first time that a journalist had been targeted in Pakistan.
"From my perspective it's something we all need to pay a lot of attention to, including the Pakistanis," Mullen said. "It's not a way to move ahead. It's a way to continue to, quite frankly, spiral in the wrong direction."
Asked about reports that the ISI was behind Shahzad's killing, Mullen said, "I haven't seen anything where I could confirm that."
Additional reporting by Michael Georgy; Editing by Paul Simao