Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Maulana Masood Azhar and some of his key aides have been detained over the Pathankot attack, Pakistani media reported hours after Islamabad announced a crackdown on the banned group on Wednesday.
“He has been placed in preventive detention amid a probe into allegations of his involvement in the Pathankot attack,” a source was quoted as saying by Geo News channel.
Azhar’s brother Mufti Abdur Rauf and his brother-in-law Ashfaq Ahmed were detained along with him on Monday, Reuters quoted two unnamed officials as saying.
The News Daily reported that Azhar, Rauf and the JeM chief’s close aides were taken to an unknown location for questioning.
“We will keep them for as long as we need to carry out our investigation over India’s claims about the attack. We are resolved to take this investigation to its conclusion,” a senior intelligence official told Reuters. A senior government official close to the investigation said Azhar, who has been placed under house arrest in the past but never prosecuted, would be prosecuted this time if evidence connected him to the Pathankot attack.
However, there was no official word on the development.
India too said it had no official confirmation about the detention of Azhar.
It is believed that Azhar and his aides were held under the Maintenance of Public Order law which allows authorities to detain people for up to three months. The same law was used earlier to detain Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) founder Hafiz Saeed.
The JeM was blamed by Indian authorities for the brazen assault on the Pathankot airbase, which killed seven security personnel. India has sought “prompt and decisive action” by Pakistan on actionable intelligence regarding the attack.
The report of Azhar’s detention came soon after Pakistan said it wants to send a special team to India to investigate the attack on the Pathankot airbase, for which an unspecified number of JeM operatives had been “apprehended”.
Following a high-level meeting chaired by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the government announced it had also begun tracing and sealing the offices of the JeM. The group was banned in 2002 but continues to be active in several areas, including Punjab province and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
Azhar formed the JeM after being freed from an Indian prison with two other militants in exchange for an Indian Airlines flight hijacked to Kandahar in 2000.
Pakistan was apparently spurred to act following pressure from the US and India.
The action also appeared to be aimed at salvaging a planned meeting of the foreign secretaries on January 15. India has linked the talks to action against perpetrators of the Pathankot attack.
The meeting chaired by Sharif, also attended by army chief Gen Raheel Sharif and ISI chief Lt Gen Rizwan Akhtar, noted that “considerable progress” had been made in the drive against terrorist elements reportedly linked to the Pathankot incident.
“In the spirit of the cooperative approach, it was also decided that in order to carry the process forward, additional information would be required, for which the government of Pakistan is considering to send a special investigation team to Pathankot, in consultation with the government of India,” said a statement from Sharif’s office.
“Based on the initial investigations in Pakistan, and the information provided, several individuals belonging to Jaish-e-Mohammed, have been apprehended. The offices of the organisation are also being traced and sealed. Further investigations are underway,” it added.
The statement did not give details about the number of JeM operatives apprehended or their identities. It also did not say how many JeM offices had been sealed or where they are located.
The meeting was also attended by interior minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, Punjab chief minister Shahbaz Sharif, foreign policy chief Sartaj Aziz, the Lahore Corps commander, the Intelligence Bureau chief and other senior civil, military and police officials.
The actions taken by Pakistan were reminiscent of its moves in the aftermath of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, carried out by a 10-member LeT squad.
Following pressure from the world community, the government had placed Hafiz Saeed and other leaders under house arrest and sealed offices of the LeT and its front organisation, Jamaat-ud-Dawah.
Seven men, including LeT commander Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, were arrested for allegedly planning and executing the attacks but there has been little progress in their trial by an anti-terrorism court.
Within six months, Saeed and other leaders of LeT and JuD were freed and the LeT resumed its activities after changing its name to Falah-e-Insaniyat Foundation.
Meanwhile, external affairs ministry spokesperson Vikas Swarup told reporters that it has received no confirmation of the detention of Azhar.
“We have no official confirmation of the arrest of Masood Azhar,” Swarup said.
Swarup said a decision on whether to go ahead with the foreign secretary-level talks with Pakistan on Friday will be taken after a meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj.
“The decision(on FS talks) will be taken after the meeting,” Swarup said after foreign secretary S Jaishankar’s meeting with Swaraj.
(With HTC inputs from New Delhi)