Pakistan police kill head of anti-Shiite group, 13 others
Malik Ishaq was shot dead along with the other Laskhar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) militants, including senior commanders, in the eastern province of Punjab.
LeJ, long seen as close to Al-Qaeda and more recently accused of developing links with the Islamic State group, has a reputation as one of Pakistan’s most ruthless militant groups.
The shootout appears to have wiped out much of the top leadership of LeJ, a driving force in a rising tide of violence targeting Shiite Muslims, who make up around 20 percent of Pakistan’s 200 million majority Sunni Muslim population.
As well as numerous sectarian atrocities, LeJ was also blamed for the 2009 attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in the eastern city of Lahore.
Ishaq, who had been in and out of police custody in recent years, was arrested on Saturday and was being moved when loyalists attacked the convoy in Muzaffargarh, a senior police official who took part in the encounter told AFP on condition of anonymity.
“The police retaliated and in the encounter Ishaq, his two sons and 11 others were killed, while six policemen were injured,” he said.
Punjab Home Minister Shuja Khanzada confirmed to AFP that Ishaq and “13 other sectarian militants including two of his sons” had been killed in the early hours of Wednesday.
Another senior police official said the attack came after Ishaq and the other LeJ cadres had been taken to recover a cache of explosives.
The cache included “three water coolers full of explosive, detonators, a Kalashnikov, some rifles and hundreds of bullets”, the police official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
“After the recovery when police were returning back, at around 3:00am, more than a dozen terrorists attacked the convoy and tried to rescue Ishaq and others,” the police official said.
– Blow to militants –
He said all the six militants in police custody were killed along with eight of the attackers, while some of the would-be rescuers fled.
Mushtaq Rasool, chief doctor at the government-run Muzaffargarh District Hospital, confirmed receiving 14 dead bodies.
The dead reportedly included Ghulam Rasool Shah, a hardline LeJ chief who acted as the group’s leader when Ishaq — designated a global terrorist by the US State Department last year — was behind bars.
Wednesday’s killings are the latest blow to militancy in Pakistan, where in the past year authorities have cracked down hard on the myriad insurgent groups that have plagued the country for a decade.
So-called “encounter” killings like Wednesday’s incident have long aroused suspicion among rights activists in Pakistan, who accuse the authorities of using them as a means of disposing of troublesome militants and criminals without going through the courts.
Pakistan’s legal system is notoriously slow and relies heavily on witness testimony rather than crime scene evidence.
Cases against militants affiliated with groups like LeJ often collapse because there is little protection for judges or witnesses from intimidation.
Ishaq, born in southern Punjab in 1959, joined the sectarian organization Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) in the 1980s but left to form LeJ in 1996 and gained notoriety for his anti-Shiite rhetoric.
He has been accused of masterminding dozens of attacks against Shiites.
He was imprisoned in 1997 after being arrested on charges of murder, death threats and intimidation, but was freed in July 2011.
Under his leadership LeJ has claimed responsibility for some of the bloodiest attacks on Shiites in Pakistan’s recent history, including two suicide bombings in the southwestern city of Quetta in early 2013 that killed more than 180 people.
There have long been accusations that the authorities have quietly tolerated LeJ, which was created from the same pool of fighters trained and nurtured by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United States in the 1980s war against the Soviets in Afghanistan.
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