Pakistani police have launched a crackdown on outlawed groups in the southern part of Punjab province, which is considered a base for the Punjabi Taliban, and arrested about 170 activists.
The "unannounced police operation" against proscribed organisations began last night, The News daily reported.
Police conducted raids in Rahimyar Khan, Bahawalpur, Bahawalnagar and Layyah districts and arrested some 170 activists of Sunni sectarian groups like the Sipah-e-Sahaba and Jaish-e-Mohammed.
During the operation, 22 offices of the banned Sipah-e-Sahaba, a notorious anti-Shia group, were sealed. The Sipah-e-Sahaba is allegedly operating under the new name of Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamaat.
The operation also targeted facilities and members of the banned groups in Lahore, Multan, Sahiwal, Khanewal, Jhang, Bhakkar, Gujrat, Vehari, Rawalpindi and other cities. The arrested activists were taken to unknown locations.
Allama Ahmad Ludhianvi, chief of the Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamaat, condemned the arrests.
In a statement, he said, "preparations were afoot to play a heinous game across the country at the behest of foreign forces".
He said the unjustified arrest of his party's workers had created an environment of tension and the government's steps had provoked activists.
"I have asked the government to identify terrorists in my party and they would be handed over to the authorities," he said.
Ludhianvi urged activists of his party to exercise restraint.
During the raids in Bahawalpur district, six activists of the Sipah-e-Sahaba, Millat-e-Islami and Jaish-e-Muhammad were arrested. Seven and five activists were arrested in Rahimyar Khan and Bahawalnagar respectively.
Talking to The News, Bahawalnagar district police chief Mehboob Rashid confirmed the arrest of five activists.
More arrests are expected, he said.
Pakistan's military and intelligence set-up had recently sent a strong message to the PML-N-led government in Punjab to crack down on banned sectarian and extremist groups like the Sipah-e-Sahaba and Jaish-e-Mohammed.
Pressure has mounted on the Punjab government to act against the banned groups in the wake of a recent suicide attack on Data Darbar, the shrine of Sufi saint Hazrat Ali Hajweri in Lahore.
Forty-five people died and over 200 were injured when two suicide bombers blew themselves up within the revered shrine.
Influential Sunni groups have asked Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif to sack provincial Law Minister Rana Sanaullah, who openly campaigned with Sipah-e-Sahaba chief Ludhianvi during a by-election in Jhang district in February.