LAHORE, May 18: For the first time, and that too at a diplomatic function, the Punjab government admitted that southern belt of the province was a breeding ground for militants.

The admission came from none other than Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif while addressing a ceremony to mark the diamond jubilee of Queen Elizabeth’s accession to the British throne here on Friday.

The provincial government had, up to now, been denying the presence of any militant elements in southern Punjab.

Claiming that he opened Daanish schools in the region to stop the younger generation from falling into extremists’ hands, the Punjab chief minister said that extreme poverty and ignorance in the area were the main causes of militancy and extremism.

He said war against militancy could be successful only to an extent. For an effective, long-term solution, socio-economic conditions would have to be improved to accomplish the task of uprooting the menace, Mr Shahbaz added.

He said Britain’s Department for International Development (DFID) and the Punjab government were working on a project for improving the lot of the people by launching a skill development programme for southern Punjab. Both the DFID and the provincial government, he said, were contributing Rs2 billion each for the project.

Recalling the role British diplomats had played in encouraging the Sharifs’ as well as of late Ms Bhutto’s return to Pakistan before the 2008 general election, Mr Shahbaz said Britain had “done a lot for restoration of democracy”.

Former army chief Jehangir Karamat, former Punjab governor Shahid Hamid, Punjab Assembly speaker Rana Muhammad Iqbal, PPP’s Mansoor Sheikh, Azizur Rehman Chan and PML-Q’s Amna Ulfat also attended the ceremony.

Britain’s acting High Commissioner, Mrs Alison Blake, said that targets had been set for increasing trade between UK and Pakistan during the recent visit of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani.

She expressed the hope that collaboration would bring people of the two nations closer.

“Enemy of Pakistan is our enemy and we want to see Pakistan a strong and stable country,” Ms Blake said.

She said the UK would continue its cooperation with Pakistan. She was full of praise for Lahore, saying it was a city of culture and civilisation.

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