Extremist leader to be freed even as Pak mulls new terror steps

  • AFP, Islamabad
  • Updated: Dec 23, 2014 15:48 IST

The leader of a banned Pakistani sectarian militant group is set to walk free from jail, officials said Tuesday, even as the government considers "radical changes" to tackle militancy after a Taliban school massacre.

Malik Ishaq, the head of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), which is dedicated to killing minority Shiite Muslims, is expected to be released on Thursday after the Punjab provincial government withdrew a request to extend his detention under public order laws.

The announcement comes less than 24 hours after Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif pledged to eradicate the "cancer" of sectarianism and will add to concerns about the effectiveness of the government response.

LeJ has claimed responsibility for numerous bloody attacks, including two bombings targeting Shiites in the southwestern city of Quetta in 2013 that killed a total of nearly 200 people.

A senior legal official told AFP that the decision not to seek an extension of Ishaq's detention was made by a three-judge review panel at Lahore High Court on Monday.

Ishaq was named as a "Specially Designated Global Terrorist" by the US State Department earlier this year. An anti-terror court in May cleared him of inciting violence and of making speeches which fomented hate but he was held under maintenance of public order laws.

Pakistan has ramped up its anti-terror strategy since the December 16 attack on an army-run school in Peshawar which killed 149 people, 133 of them children.

Six convicts have been hanged after Sharif lifted a moratorium on executions in terror cases, and the military has stepped up operations against insurgent bases in the tribal northwest.

Officials said Monday that Pakistan plans to execute around 500 militants in coming weeks.

An official in Sharif's office said Tuesday the prime minister had cleared his diary to focus on the terror response in meetings with ministers, legal advisers and military top brass.

"(He) will give the whole day to security and radical changes/reforms which are being considered," the official said.

The consultations come a week after heavily armed gunmen stormed the school in Pakistan's deadliest ever terror attack, claimed by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan as revenge for the killing of their families in the army offensive.

Sharif hinted the military operation could be extended against "the enemy who is hidden in our cities and villages", in a statement issued late on Monday.

"Terrorism and sectarianism is like a cancer for Pakistan and now is high time we got rid of this menace," he said in the statement.

Sectarian violence, mainly targeting Shiites who make up around one in five of the population, has been on the rise in recent years.

But it is relatively rare for a top politician to address the issue specifically by name in such frank terms.

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