The Pakistan Army has arrested several terrorists and facilitators during an operation in the country’s most populous province of Punjab in the aftermath of a suicide attack at a crowded park that killed 72 people, most of them women and children.
Soldiers and paramilitary Pakistan Rangers personnel have carried out five operations in Lahore, Faisalabad and Multan since Sunday and arrested a “number of suspect terrorists and facilitators” and recovered a “huge cache of arms and ammunition”, chief military spokesperson Lt Gen Asim Bajwa said.
“Operations continue with more leads coming in,” he said.
Most of the army’s campaigns against terrorists and militants have been conducted in Pakistan’s northwest and an operation has not been conducted in Punjab despite several outlawed groups, including the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, having a significant presence in the province.
The influential Dawn newspaper reported “there were clear indications that a decision had been taken by the military high command to expand the operation throughout” Punjab.
The Geo News channel quoted its sources as saying that the crackdown had commenced from southern Punjab, long believed to be a hotbed of religious extremism and militancy.
The operations in Lahore, Faisalabad, Multan and Muzaffargarh targeted seminaries and other targets linked to terrorist and extremist groups, the Dawn reported. Raids were carried out on the basis of technical evidence and information gathered by intelligence agencies after the bombing at Lahore’s Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park on Sunday.
Army chief Gen Raheel Sharif, who had ordered raids on terrorist hideouts in Punjab at a late-night military session on Sunday, chaired over another meeting at the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi on Monday morning to review progress.
Sunday’s suicide attack was claimed by the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a faction of the Pakistani Taliban. However, it was not clear which of the numerous banned groups in Punjab were being targeted in the ongoing operations.
The Dawn quoted an intelligence source as saying that “orders had been given for expanding the scope of the crackdown to all parts of the province and against all groups involved in acts of terror without any discrimination”.
The army had been “long pushing the government to initiate action against Punjab-based extremist and terrorist groups, but the civilian government was dragging its feet on the matter”, the report said. The government had “asked the military to identify the problem and leave it to the provincial law-enforcement agencies to neutralise the threat”, it added.
The PML-N governments at the centre and in Punjab were reluctant to agree to a military operation because of concerns that such a move could weaken the party’s hold in the province, where it has been in power since 2008, the report said.
The daily, citing a source, reported the military and intelligence leadership concluded after Sunday’s bombing in Lahore that it was “beyond the capacity of civilian agencies to tackle the problem”.
The military, instead of waiting for consultations with civilian authorities, decided to go ahead with a “large-scale effect-based operation, using all resources available at its disposal”, the report added.
There has been no publicly reported conversation between Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Gen Sharif over the past two days with regard to the operation. The Prime Minister, during his address to the nation on television on Monday evening, reaffirmed his pledge to fight terrorism but stopped short of announcing an operation in Punjab.
The absence of a clear announcement in the Prime Minister’s speech regarding a counter-terrorism offensive in Punjab “reinforced the impression of civil-military differences over the operation”, the report said.
(With inputs from agencies)