By Asad Hashim
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - The Pakistani government on Thursday defended its decision to place a travel ban on a prominent journalist over an article he wrote about an alleged rift between the country's powerful military and its government.
Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan told reporters that Cyril Almeida would not be allowed to leave the country until the completion of a government committee's inquiry into the story, which authorities have repeatedly denied.
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The committee would decide if anyone was to be prosecuted in relation to the story.
Almeida, a leading columnist and assistant editor at one of Pakistan's most respected English-language dailies, filed a story on Oct 6. that gave an account of a tense, high-level security meeting between civilian and government officials.
Quoting anonymous sources, the story said civilian government officials called for the military not to interfere if law enforcement authorities tried to arrest members of anti-India militant groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba.
The government has issued three denials of the story, and on Thursday Khan reiterated them. Almeida's newspaper Dawn stands by the story, saying it was verified with multiple sources.
The government placed a travel ban on Almeida late on Monday under the Exit from Pakistan (Control) Ordinance 1981. Khan said the step was taken to prevent Almeida from leaving the country while the inquiry was ongoing.
Calling the committee "informal", Khan said it was gathering evidence and would complete this task in about four days.
"If this committee feels that there is enough evidence to prosecute, then a formal (law enforcement) committee will be made."
Khan said Almeida's name could be removed from the Exit Control List once the inquiry committee had presented unspecified "evidence" to him to respond to.
"We do not want to pressure him - if he says he does not want to share his source, then should we extract it from him with a stick? No," said Khan.
"But we want to share some evidence with him, whether he owns or disowns it."
Khan said the travel ban was placed on Almeida because he was due to fly to Dubai on Oct. 11, suggesting that he was fleeing the country.
Almeida told Reuters his travel plans to Dubai had been made a month in advance, and were for a family vacation.
Pakistan ranks 147th of 179 countries on Reporters Without Borders' World Press Freedom Index. At least 59 journalists have been killed in targeted attacks since 1992, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
(Writing by Asad Hashim; Editing by Mike Collett-White)