LAHORE: Malik Ishaq, leader of the banned Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), one of the country’s deadliest militant outfits, was killed in a gunfight that ensued after his supporters allegedly attacked a police convoy in Shahwala jungle near Muzaffargarh early on Wednesday morning in an attempt to free him.

His two sons, Malik Usman and Malik Haq Nawaz, his deputy Ghulam Rasool Shah and 11 other militants were also killed in the gunfight, police said. Six policemen sustained injuries during the course of shootout and were taken to an undisclosed hospital for security reasons.

Ishaq, his two sons, Shah and two other militants belo­nging to the LeJ had been de­tained by the Counter-Ter­rorism Depart­ment (CTD) in Multan a week or so ago for investigations in recent sectarian killings in different cities of south Punjab, including Rahimyar Khan, Rajanpur, Bahawalnagar and Muzaffargarh.

The circumstances of the alleged attack on the police convoy and the killings re­main suspicious. But police said 12 to 15 people attacked the CTD police party which was returning from Shahwala where the detained militants had been led to for recovering a large cache of arms and explosives they had confessed to have hidden.

But a police handout issued later in the day failed to explain why all of the detained militants had been led from Multan late in the night to the place where arms and ammunition had been hidden. The suspicious circumstances surrounding Ishaq’s killing sparked speculation that the “encounter” had been staged because police did not have sufficient evidence to convict him and other detained militants in the court.

When Dawn’s Muzaffar­garh correspondent visited the jungle where the gunfight took place, a person who claimed to be resident of a nearby settlement said he heard gunshots for 15 to 25 minutes at around 4-5am. “We were terrified and did not come out of house. It was in the morning that we learnt about the incident.”

Ishaq had co-founded the LeJ, which later joined forces with Al Qaeda and the banned Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, with Riaz Basra and Akram Lahori in 1996. Basra was killed in a police encounter in 2003 and Lahori was hanged in January this year.

Ishaq was first arrested in 1997 after confessing in a newspaper interview to have killed more than 100 people.

In spite of his direct invol­vement in sectarian killings and violent attacks against non-Muslims, Ishaq could never be convicted. He was freed after 13 years in prison in 2011 when the Lahore High Court said the prosecution had failed to furnish adequate evidence to convict him for masterminding (from behind bars) the bloody attack on Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore.

The LeJ leader was designated by the US as a global terrorist in February last year. He was frequently put under house arrest on charges of hate speech and instigation of violence against other sects after his release under the high court order.

The police handout said Malik Ishaq and Ghulam Rasool Shah were running a big gang of terrorists/target killers. “(The) gang was also in league with the TTP and Al Qaeda groups operating in the area. It is a big blow to the banned terrorist organisations in south Punjab.”

Ishaq’s killing also triggered speculations that the Zarb-i-Azb operation against militants and extremists has now moved from tribal backyard of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Karachi to south Punjab.

Security analyst Asad Munir told Dawn by phone that (the military leadership) was convinced from the very inception of the operation that there would be no use of exterminating terrorists from the tribal areas alone without cleaning up the country’s cities (of the jihadi and militant outfits).

“The killing of Malik Ishaq shows that Zarb-i-Azb operation is being conducted across-the-board,” he said. But, he added, (the military leadership) would not deploy paramilitary forces in the cities. “Police have expertise and resources to pull off the job.”

All efforts to reach Punjab Home Minister Shuja Khanzada and Law Minister Rana Sanaullah, who are usually readily available to media persons, failed as they had switched off their mobile phones.

Maulana Ahmed Ludhianvi, the chief of the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan incarnate, dubbed to be the political face of LeJ, also made himself unavailable to reporters.

The ASWJ leader from Jhang, Haji Muneer, declined to comment, saying it was for the central leadership to speak on the matter.

The Shahbaz Sharif government in Punjab is often alleged to have been “lenient” on Malik Ishaq after a deal was struck between them through ASWJ leader Maulana Ahmed Ludhianvi before his release under the court order.

The Maulana himself had told in an interview in Jhang a few years ago that the provincial government had approached him for playing the role of an “honest broker” between it and Malik Ishaq. “The deal was struck only after Malik Ishaq renounced violence,” the ASWJ leader had said.

RANGERS IN RAHIM YAR KHAN: The district administration in Rahim Yar Khan, the hometown of the slain LeJ leader, imposed Section 144 and called the Rangers to maintain law and order in the city in view of possible protests by Ishaq’s followers.

“We are expecting strong backlash and have taken preventive measures to maintain peace in the city,” District Coordination Officer Zafar Iqbal told Dawn by phone. “The Rangers are organising a flag march in the city as we speak. Their (Rangers’) stay in the city will depend upon the situation.”

He said the situation in the city remained normal throughout the day except for a couple of isolated attempts by supporters of Malik Ishaq to attack an Imambargah.

The traders kept the markets closed in anticipation of protests and possible violence by ASWJ/LeJ supporters. Some reports suggested that all federal and provincial employees were “unofficially” advised to leave for home.

A petrol pump was ransacked and a police car smashed while the situation outside the residence of Malik Ishaq in Islamnagar at the Airport Road remained tense.

The district administration claimed that the situation in Khanpur and Sadiqabad was under control.

MUZAFFARGARH: The security of imambargahs, mosques and government buildings was beefed up in Muzaffargarh in anticipation of reaction from ASWJ/LeJ supporters.

Police did not give the identity of their men who had suffered injuries in the encounter because of security reasons.

Some people tried to stage protest and forced traders to close down the markets but police arrested some of them.

On Tuesday, police had raided several seminaries and houses in the district and took into custody 40 to 50 suspects belonging to the ASWJ and LeJ.

The bodies of LeJ militants were brought to the district hospital.

(Dawn correspondents Malik Tehseen Raza in Muzaffargarh and Malik Irfanul Haq in Rahim Yar Khan contributed to this report)

Published in Dawn, July 30th, 2015

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