Pakistani authorities are keeping the location of Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar, detained in connection with the Pathankot attack, a secret as they fear his supporters could launch an operation to free him, officials said on Thursday.
Azhar, freed in 1999 with two more terrorists in exchange for the passengers of an Indian airliner hijacked to Kandahar, was reportedly placed in “preventive custody” this week after India blamed him of masterminding the assault on the Pathankot airbase.
The JeM founder was moved to Multan and is expected to be shifted to a detention centre in Lahore in the next couple of days, said officials who spoke on condition of anonymity. They did not give further details.
“There are fears that his supporters may launch an operation to free him from police custody and because of this, his whereabouts are being kept secret,” a source said.
The Pakistan government has officially acknowledged that several JeM operatives have been “apprehended”. When the Foreign Office spokesman was asked on Thursday if Azhar had been detained, he said he had no information on such arrests.
Officials said the Pakistan government was continuing its operation against JeM activists after the reported detention of Azhar, his brother Rauf Azhar and some close aides.
Federal police and paramilitary Pakistan Rangers personnel conducted raids in parts of Punjab province, including Bahawalpur, the mian base of the JeM, Bahawalnagar, Rahimyar Khan and Multan to apprehend more militants, officials said.
Additional inspector general Rai Tahir of Punjab Police has been tasked by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif with investigating the charges against Azhar and other JeM operatives.
It is believed that Tahir will head the special investigation team that Pakistan wants to send to Pathankot to collect evidence so that formal charges can be laid against the Azhar brothers. The Pakistan government said on Wednesday the visit is being planned in “consultation” with its Indian counterpart.
A report in The News daily said Azhar and his associates were held by the Inter-Services Intelligence agency. According to the report, the ISI checked the information provided by Indian authorities and confirmed that all six attackers in the Pathankoth incident had crossed over from Pakistan to India.
“It was after this information was confirmed that the government ordered the detention of the leadership of the JeM,” an unnamed official told the paper.
There are expectations that a full-fledged operation by the paramilitary Pakistan Rangers will be launched in Punjab to shut down militant facilities, particularly in the southern parts of the province.
But some experts have alleged the whole operation is an “eye wash”.
“The same militants who were being nurtured by the military and its agencies till a few months back are now being arrested and charged,” said analyst Ayaz Khan. The JeM, he said, has been given access and support by the ISI and was allowed to set up camps in southern Punjab.
According to analyst Aisha Siddiqa, southern Punjab has, over the years, been turned into a base for sectarian and militant organisations. “We have seen their rapid proliferation and protection comes to them from the Nawaz Sharif government and from the military,” she said.